Increasing the life-saving capacity of animal shelters and communities through education, shelter outreach, and development of new knowledge

Animal Services' Role in COVID-19 Support


Document Type: Information Sheet
Topics: Infectious Disease
Species: Feline and Canine

Animal services are essential, but we can't conduct business as usual. What must shelters do - and not do - right now? Note: This is a dynamic situation and information will be updated as new information is available. Last updated 1:30 pm CT 4/3/2020.

This entire document and some individual chapters are available for download as PDFs. See the bottom of this information sheet for individual chapters.


Coronaviruses and pets

Coronaviruses are a family of enveloped RNA viruses. Because of the envelope, these viruses are readily inactivated by nearly all commonly found disinfectants. No special disinfection chemical or process is required. As always, mechanical cleaning is an important first step in sanitation to remove pathogens from the environment.

According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) some strains of coronaviruses are zoonotic, but many are not. Canine and feline coronaviruses currently in circulation are well described and are not zoonotic.

COVID-19 infection results from human to human transmission with a coronavirus known as SARS CoV-2. While three recent reports from Belgium and Hong Kong (1 cat and 2 dogs respectively) describe transmission from humans to their pets, at this point there is no evidence that companion animals can be a source of infection to humans or animals. For more details on pets that have tested positive please visit the "SARS-CoV-2 and domestic animals, including pets" section of the COVID-19 page on the AVMA’s website. For up to date information please see CDC COVID-19 and animals, AVMA COVID-19 FAQs for veterinarians and veterinary clinics and COVID-19 FAQs for pet owners.

The CDC states that transmission is thought to be primarily between people in close contact through respiratory droplets (coughing, sneezing). Transmission of the virus from a contaminated surface is possible but not thought to be the primary way the virus is spread.

The WHO, OEI, and CDC continue to recommend that pets stay with their people and that people who are sick or infected limit contact with their pets. People who are sick or under medical attention for COVID-19 should avoid close contact with their pets and have another member of their household care for their animals. If they must look after their pet, they should maintain good hygiene practices and wear a face mask if possible.

According to OIE, “it is important that COVID-19 does not lead to inappropriate measures being taken against domestic or wild animals which might compromise their welfare and health or have a negative impact on biodiversity.”

Primary learning points

  • The primary risk of transmission to humans remains other humans.
  • Evidence suggests some companion animals can be infected from close contact with humans sick with COVID-19.
  • There is no current evidence to suggest that pets play a role in the spread of this human disease.
  • The WHO, OEI, and CDC continue to recommend that pets stay with their people and that people who are sick or infected limit contact with their pets.

This information highlights the need for more information that could be gathered from testing and suggests the importance of good intake, husbandry, and separation practices for shelters admitting animals who have had close contact with humans who have been infected. The decision to test will be made collaboratively between local, state, and federal animal and public health officials

Please contact UW Shelter Medicine at if you are a shelter admitting animals that have had close, known exposure to people with confirmed infections. Limited diagnostic testing may be available.

Animal Services and COVID-19

In preparation for an increase in COVID-19 cases and the hospitalization of people with severe disease, animal service agencies are collaborating with public health departments to support the animals of persons who require hospitalization. For people that do not have family or friends that can care for their pets during their hospitalization, animal service support may include temporary sheltering of their pets. For people who may need to self-isolate or are quarantined after exposure to an infected individual, animal service agencies are working to support the co-housing of people with their pets in their homes or in temporary emergency housing.

Co-housing people with their pets whenever possible has a three-fold impact. First, previous disasters demonstrated that pets are integral family members and people will place themselves at significant risk rather than be separated from their animals. Compliance with important recommendations, including disclosure of symptoms or exposure to an infected person, may be compromised if people believe they may be separated from their pets when isolated or quarantined.

Second, pets have a beneficial impact on human health, providing companionship and reducing anxiety. Isolation and quarantine are extremely stressful with uncertainty, fear and anger that may be exacerbated by social isolation. Reducing stress by keeping families together, including a family’s pets, is important to maintaining the health of both the people and their animals.

Third, animal shelters could quickly become overwhelmed unless they limit their services to those who truly cannot care for their pets. Bringing in large numbers of animals would stretch capacity and resources to the point where adequate care could no longer be ensured. The possibility of a crisis in the human health care system because of a rapid influx of patients beyond the capacity to provide care is very real at this time. Avoiding a parallel crisis in animal welfare is essential to protect community health and is in the best interest of all the individuals, humans and animals, involved.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association, WSAVA, has compiled information from global authorities on the current understanding of the role of companion animals and COVID-19. There is no current evidence that companion animals are a source of infection to people.

For more information visit WSAVA's information page:

Current recommendations from the CDC include washing hands before and after interacting with pets if ill.

NACA recommended Animal Services functions and practices during COVID-19 pandemic

University of Wisconsin-Madison Shelter Medicine Program and the signed organizations wholeheartedly support and recommend animal control agencies and animal shelters follow the recommendations found in the recently released statements from the National Animal Care & Control Association (NACA) during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 carries the possibility of creating a significant animal welfare crisis in shelters experiencing reduced capacity for care due to staffing shortages, the need for social distancing, and reduced outcome opportunities via adoption, foster or rescue.

In an effort to mitigate the short and long-term effects of this pandemic, we encourage animal control agencies and shelters to implement the NACA recommendations beginning immediately.

NACA’s statements incorporate the following key recommendations:

  • Animal control agencies should take active measures to eliminate non-essential shelter intake.
  • Discontinue low priority/non-emergency activity (non-aggressive stray animal pick-up, nuisance complaints, etc.).
  • At this time, continue to respond to emergency and high priority calls (law enforcement assistance, injured or sick stray animals, bite and dangerous dog complaints, etc.).
  • To preserve critical medical supplies and minimize the potential for human contact exposure, shelters and spay-neuter clinics should limit surgeries to emergency cases only.

Importantly, NACA notes that “shelters should continue providing live outcomes for sheltered cats and dogs. The lack of immediately available spay and neuter services should not be a reason for shelter euthanasia. Further, anticipated personnel and supply resource depletion in shelters dictate that essential services and lifesaving capacity be preserved by reducing the number of animals in custody as quickly as possible. This should be done by expediting the movement of animals to adoptive or foster homes and not extending the stay of animals in the shelter for spay or neuter surgery.”

Download Endorsement of NACA Recommendations (PDF)

Recommendations for kitten intake during COVID-19 pandemic

In order to support human and animal health in the midst of the current pandemic, healthy kittens of any age should not be admitted to animal shelters; intake is only appropriate for kittens that are sick, injured, or are in immediate danger.

Kitten season is approaching and, in many places, has arrived – and this year we have additional challenges in terms of intake, care and outcomes – everything that we do in response to helping these little ones.

This year more than ever we must acknowledge that:

1. Healthy, unweaned kittens do not fall into the category of sick or injured.

2. Healthy, unweaned kittens are unlikely to be orphaned – and only become so when they are removed from where their mother is likely nearby.

3. Kittens are healthiest, short and long term, when raised by their mother.

4. Healthy cats/kittens of any age found/seen outside are not an emergency for shelter intake; intake is only appropriate for cats that are sick, injured, dangerous, or are in immediate danger, as in the case of cats that are victims of neglect or cruelty.

As we make decisions and write protocols for this kitten season there are many additional factors that we have to keep in mind so that we balance human and animal health and safety:

1. COVID-19 risk for staff coming to the shelter to intake and care for animals, especially kittens because juveniles require greater intensity of care in shelters:

  • Close contact and/or prolonged exposure (> 10 minutes) to people shedding virus, even if not apparently sick, are the biggest risk factors for spread leading to infection with COVID-19.
  • People can shed virus, although lower amounts compared to when sick, up to three days before being symptomatic.
  • Care of kittens in a shelter setting will be difficult if not impossible to perform with appropriate social distancing (>6 feet) between caregivers and sufficiently frequent hygiene (hand washing, hand sanitizer application, avoiding touching one’s face).
  • Infection control between litters of kittens is also critical to prevent spread of infections such as panleukopenia. Meeting these needs often requires use of scarce PPE resources. Compromises in infection control due to limited staffing or supplies will place kittens at increased risk.
  • The more kittens are in care, the more difficult it will be to meet the requirements for human and animal safety. Any available shelter capacity should be reserved for sick and injured kittens and other animals as described above.

2. One of the needs of juveniles is a prompt positive outcome. In addition to the risks to staff described above from providing care, facilitating adoptions and/or foster care increases contact and thus exposure between people.

Essential Veterinary Services in a Shelter Setting (coming soon)

Limiting non-essential surgeries in shelter and spay-neuter clinics


A recommendation to limit “non-essential” or “elective” surgical procedures has been made by the U.S. Surgeon General. While the American Hospital Association has responded to this recommendation by noting it is important for doctors and hospitals to be able to make decisions about prioritized care independently, many hospitals including some hospitals for children have already announced their intention to comply. All health care professionals need to adopt strategies that will allow them to conserve PPE as much as possible, including veterinarians. Veterinary medicine is part of the overall health care umbrella we have in the United States. The AVMA recently stated that veterinary practices can and should defer elective procedures to preserve medical supplies when circumstances call for that but also must be able to provide medically necessary care.

For the purpose of these recommendations a non-emergency (“elective” or “non-essential”) surgical procedure is one that is not urgently required in order to maintain the health of the patient. Most spays and neuters, even pre-adoption, are non-emergency procedures.

Conservation of PPE is not the only reason to defer non-emergency surgeries. Either currently or in the next several weeks it is expected that shelters will experience:

  • Reduced staffing in shelters as staff and volunteers become ill or need to quarantine. If the number of animals in shelters does not also decrease dramatically a crisis of care may develop with insufficient capacity and supplies to care for the animals in the shelter.
  • Continued need for veterinary care for animals with reduced veterinary capacity
  • Scarcity of medical equipment and supplies
  • Need to limit contact between people in an effort to reduce human exposure


Given the current pandemic, in an effort to reduce resource use, workload, and the potential for human exposure, shelters and spay-neuter clinics should make decisions about which spay-neuter surgeries and other procedures are non-emergency procedures and discontinue those that could be deferred. The simplest pathway to continuing adoptions and other placements while deferring those surgeries may vary by organization. Adopting with vouchers to return for surgery when the pandemic has resolved or utilizing foster to adoption programs where laws require surgery prior to adoption, will help to avert adding animal welfare crises to the current human crisis by keeping animals moving through the shelter. Euthanasia should not be utilized as an alternative to releasing animals to adopters/foster unsterilized. For some animals, spay or neuter surgery prior to adoption or foster may be deemed essential either to encourage placement, support the human-animal bond, or be in the best interest of the animal (e.g., pyometra).

Please watch this short interview with Dr. Sandra Newbury and Dr. Julie Levy to hear directly from the experts on this issue.

Transport and movement of animals during the COVID-19 pandemic

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Shelter Medicine Program, University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, University of California- Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, Cornell Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program, Humane Canada, The Association for Advancement of Animal Welfare, Association of Shelter Veterinarians, Ontario Shelter Medicine Association and the Association Vétérinaire Québécoise de Médicine de Refuge endorse the following statement and recommendations for animal movement by shelters, agencies, and rescues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every exception to social distancing decreases its efficacy.

Social distancing is the current strategy our nations have chosen to combat COVID 19. The hope is that by implementing social distancing we can avoid the collapse of our health care system in the short run by slowing the spread of disease and decreasing the rate of human patients in need of hospitalization and critical care. Our health care workers are putting themselves at great risk trying to care for the thousands of infected individuals presenting to hospitals each day. Social distancing puts our nations at substantial economic risk but has the intention of saving perhaps millions of human lives. Decreasing the efficacy of social distancing puts us all at risk of failing with our intervention to control disease while also jeopardizing our economy. The more stringent we are in our efforts at social distancing, the more likely the constraints on our activities will be released quickly and the fewer human and animal lives are likely to be lost.

While we have all invested our lives in preventing the loss of animal lives, we are called now to protect human life as well as animal lives, which means finding new ways to prevent euthanasia and promote care for animals in need. The key request coming from our governments and health advisors is for people to stay at home and limit travel, with exceptions made only for the minimum needed to carry out essential functions.

Travel includes the transport of animals from one community to another. While this type of animal movement has been an important approach to lifesaving for many organizations, continuing to transport animals increases the risk to human lives.

Just as non-emergency intake should be suspended to limit numerous risks within every community, travel for routine transport outside the immediate community of each shelter should also be discontinued. Transport should not be utilized as a means to continue non-emergency shelter intake. Instead, transport source shelters should be supported in implementing the recommendations to limit intake to only emergency situations (e.g. sick, injured, dangerous, or endangered). Transport may be considered when a source shelter lacks the capacity to provide appropriate care for an animal admitted appropriately on an emergency basis. For example, some shelters may lack the medical capacity to provide necessary care for a sick or injured animal. Even in such cases, opportunities for care within the community should be sought prior to transport (such as at another shelter or private veterinary clinic). Where local options have been exhausted, transport partners should observe the same precautions for maintaining social distancing and limiting personnel exposure as have been developed for the release of animals to adoption, foster, etc. We must acknowledge that each exception carries risks for humans. Transports should not travel to areas that do not yet have significant numbers of COVID19 cases or to states or communities that have asked for specific travel restrictions.

As an alternative, transfer between shelters in the same community and delivery for foster care or adoption is encouraged because it promotes live releases while maintaining recommended social distancing guidelines.

Be respectful of #safeathome orders in each state and municipality. While shelters and clinics have been identified as essential organizations, not every service or function of a shelter is essential. It is our obligation to reduce our activities.

When intake is decreased to emergencies only, the capacity to find a lifesaving outcome within the community is increased. This is why it is so essential to follow NACA guidelines for intake reduction and call response.

Download Transport Statement and Recommendations

Temporary sheltering of pets exposed to COVID-19 and recommendations for care

Interim recommendations for intake of companion animals from households where humans with COVID-19 are present were developed in collaboration with The American Veterinary Medical Association, University of Wisconsin-Madison Shelter Medicine Program, The Association of Shelter Veterinarians, University of California-Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 One Health Team. Click here to view the recommendations in their entirety on the AVMA website.

The intent of these recommendations is to facilitate preparedness and establish practices that can help people and companion animals stay safe and healthy. At this time, there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19. States may have their own specific requirements for these circumstances. These recommendations offer a conservative approach due to the unknown risks to companion animals. These recommendations acknowledge that there is currently limited available scientific data on which to base decisions but also draw on routine guidance for zoonotic disease infection prevention and control in shelter settings. This is a rapidly evolving situation. These recommendations will be updated as new information becomes available.

By far, the greatest risk of COVID-19 exposure to staff, volunteers, and the public at animal shelters comes from person-to-person contact. Shelters should follow CDC guidance on preventing COVID-19 exposure in businesses to help you plan, prepare, and respond to COVID-19. In particular, staff and volunteers should not come to work if sick and should take steps to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Interventions to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission are the same at an animal shelter or clinic as in other aspects of daily life; follow up to date information from the CDC on how to protect yourself.

Protocols specific to protecting staff when in high-risk situations, such as entering an infected person’s home or coming into proximity with a sick person, should be consistent with the most up to date guidance from state and federal public health authorities including CDC. For the most up to date guidance, visit your state’s Department of Health website and CDC’s COVID-19 website.

These interim recommendations are for animal services and animal shelters that will intake companion animals that lived with persons with COVID-19. There is currently limited evidence that animals can be infected with the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Every effort should be made to allow companion animals to continue to cohabitate with their family when possible. However, if temporary sheltering becomes necessary, the recommendations are provided to ensure coordination with the appropriate public health and animal health officials and to minimize infection risk to shelter staff and volunteers. While the risks of COVID-19 from contact with such animals are considered very low, it is nonetheless prudent for shelters to use the best available information on general infection prevention for contagious diseases, including coronaviruses.

Sample Protocol for shelter intake of pets from households where humans with coronavirus are present (updated 3/31/20)



Additional Resources

General information relevant to COVID-19 and companion animals is provided at the following links:

Downloadable Files