If nothing else, this pandemic has demonstrated the power of science. In little under a year, scientists around the world have discovered a deadly disease, investigated how it operates, and developed multiple vaccines to bring an end to this terrible situation. Yet there is still much we do not know about SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing the COVID-19 disease.

You may remember in the news a few months back that millions of minks were slaughtered in Europe because of fears they could be spreading COVID to people. Ferrets are a similar species to mink, so naturally owners of these furry pets are concerned too. Should you be worried? Is your ferret at risk from COVID-19?

The Background and COVID-19 in Pets

Let’s start with the background on this story. The origins of SARS-CoV-2 are still unclear, but it almost certainly was transmitted from animals to people – this is called zoonosis. The most popular theory is that the virus came from bats; though, there may have been other animals involved before it first infected humans. We all, of course, know the danger of human to human infection, but there have also been a small number of cases where people have infected animals. This is reverse zoonosis, or anthroponosis. Dogs, cats, monkeys, gorillas and even lions and tigers have tested positive for COVID-19. However, animals infected with COVID-19 generally show mild clinical signs, and the chance of the disease being passed back from animal to human is small. 

The UK government does still recommend that you should “wash your hands before and after any contact with your pet, its food and bedding… not share food with your pet… [and] avoid contact such as kissing or cuddling if you’re self-isolating.” All of these practices we recommend you avoid anyway as there are other diseases we can catch from pets, such as parasites. You should also avoid contact with other peoples’ pets, as they can carry the virus as fomites, without being infected themselves, which could spread COVID-19 to you and your family.

Mink and Ferrets

Back to the mink (or minks, if you prefer). Cases of mink becoming infected with COVID-19 from humans as well as mink with COVID-19 infecting humans back had been known about for a while. However, the story in late 2020 from Denmark became widely known because Denmark had around 17 million mink on farms, and there was evidence that mink had started human outbreaks within Denmark. Furthermore, there was a fear that mutations of SARS-CoV-2 in mink made the virus more resistant and could make the upcoming vaccine less effective. Almost all of these mink were culled because of these fears.

Mink farming has been outlawed in the UK since the early 2000s, but ferrets are a popular pet, working and research animal. Ferrets and mink are closely related, both being mustelids. And the similarities don’t end there – ferrets can both be infected with COVID-19 and spread it back to humans. As with all pets, the risk of spread back to humans is low and ferrets infected with COVID-19 generally only have mild respiratory disease, but the risk is there. There is also concern that a similar mutation could occur in ferrets as in mink, making our current vaccination effort less effective.

What You Can Do?

We do want to reiterate that our current understanding shows that animal-human and human-animal transmission of COVID-19, including ferrets, is still very low, but it is not impossible. Thus, organisations have issued guidance for ferrets owners to minimise this risk as much as possible.

Firstly, if you have or are suspected to have COVID-19:

You should self-isolate from ferrets as well as people – this means no physical contact or contact with their food, bedding or toys. Another member of the house should care for your pet ferret if possible. Ferrets may be infectious for longer than people are. If anyone in the house is self-isolating or your ferret has tested positive for COVID-19, the ferret must isolate for 21 days. This means keeping them away from any other ferrets or people outside the house, just like human self-isolation. You can, of course, visit the vets for emergency care – but please ring ahead first for advice.

If your ferret is showing signs related to COVID-19:

Typical signs include loss of appetite, lethargy and mild respiratory and digestive disease. In this situation, you should contact your vet by telephone. Tests are available for ferrets. If your ferret tests positive for COVID-19, then they must start isolating for 21 days. It is likely that most ferrets will be infected by their owners or other members of the household, so if your ferret tests positive for COVID-19, but no humans in the house are showing symptoms of COVID-19, we recommend that you isolate and get tested as soon as possible – note that the government have not given advice for this specific situation, so erring on the side of caution and isolating for the full 21 days is likely the best course of action. Should this unfortunate situation occur, please contact the NHS, APHA or DEFRA for further advice.  

There is some good news 

Companies in Russia and the US are developing a vaccine for domestic animals, probably including ferrets, that may help reduce the risk of ferrets infecting humans and vice versa. It will likely take a few more months to become regulated (Russia predicts this process may begin in late February), and vaccines for ferrets are probably quite low down the priority list for our government right now, but watch this space. In the meantime, follow the above advice to help protect you, your family and your ferrets from COVID-19.

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Summing Up

So for a quick recap:

  • COVID-19 can rarely infect animals, including ferrets
  • COVID-19 can rarely be spread from animals back to humans
  • COVID-19 in pets is generally mild and not dangerous – you should still contact your vet if your pet is sick
  • If someone in your house is infected, or suspected to be infected, with COVID-19, they should self-isolate and avoid contact with their ferret
  • If your ferret tests positive for COVID-19, or someone in the house is self-isolating, the ferret must isolate for 21 days at home
  • If your ferret tests positive for COVID-19, we recommend self-isolating for 21 days and getting a COVID-19 test

And once again, information on COVID-19 in pets is sparse and ever-changing. The above information has been taken from government, CDC and DEFRA websites, and is current as of early February 2021 – the situation may change in future, so please keep checking for new guidance.

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