Many unknowns still surround COVID-19, including its potential effects on household pets.

With the lingering uncertainty, pet owners should be prepared to take special precautions to protect their furry family members in the event they themselves get sick.

There is not evidence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of companion animals being able to spread the virus. A tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York tested positive in early April for the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, and the CDC reports a “very small number” of pets outside the U.S. contracting the virus after coming into close contact with infected people.

For these reasons, the CDC recommends treating pets the same as human family members — don’t let them interact with people or animals outside the household, and if someone becomes sick with COVID-19, they should isolate themselves from pets if possible. If an owner must continue caring for their pet while infected, the CDC advises wearing gloves and a cloth face covering and washing hands before and after interacting with a pet. Those who are sick should avoid petting, snuggling with, being licked by and sharing food with their pets.

Local animal experts say pet owners should have care plans in place in case of illness.

“That is a very, very big concern,” said Donna Wombeke, executive director of Heartland Animal Rescue Team in Baxter.

Just like people might have a health care directive, Wombeke said pet owners should have a similar plan for pet care.

“Everybody should be thinking about what would happen if they would have to go to the hospital or if they would become very ill,” she said.

Donna Sutton, executive director of the Babinski Foundation animal shelter in Pequot Lakes, said pet owners should identify an emergency caregiver for their animals, have instructions ready and make sure to have an ample supply of pet food and any needed medications.

“Have it ready now before you become ill because you’re maybe not going to be thinking clearly if you do become ill,” Sutton said. “Write down behavior tendencies and habits. Just think of things that can make the transfer easier for yourself and for your pet caregiver in the event you do become ill.”

Wombeke said HART cannot provide long-term boarding for animals of sick individuals at this time and is not asking people to foster animals either. There is no evidence, according to the CDC, of viruses being spread from animal fur to people, though other certain bacteria and fungi can. HART will still take impounds for municipalities and allow pet owners to pick up impounded animals, but is not taking personal surrenders at this time. Those with stray animals should call the shelter first to see if there is room. The Babinski Foundation will not take surrenders right now either. Emergency situations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Both HART and the Babinski Foundation closed their doors to the public during the pandemic, but are still offering adoptions by appointment. Adoptable animals at both shelters can be viewed at www.petfinder.com. Those interested in adopting a pet should call the shelters to inquire about specific animals and schedule an appointment.

During this time, the Babinski Foundation is allowing animals who are not spayed or neutered to be adopted as well, as those procedures are considered elective and cannot be done under Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order. Those who adopt pets that have not been altered must pay a deposit. When restrictions lift, those owners will have 60 days to bring their pets in for surgery at no cost and will get their deposit back.

“We just want to be able to make all the animals available in order to expedite the movement of animals to adoptive or foster homes and not extend their stay here in the shelter waiting to be spayed and neutered,” Sutton said.

On April 10, Wombeke said HART had facilitated about five or six adoptions during the prior week. The Babinski Foundation saw a record number of adoptions in March, with 93 animals finding their forever homes throughout the month. A litter of puppies became available near the beginning of the pandemic, Sutton said, and some people felt it was a good opportunity to adopt while they’re at home more and have extra time on their hands to train. She just hopes there isn’t an influx in animals surrendered once this is all over.

Sutton said the Babinski Foundation is working with the Crow Wing County Public Health Department to prepare temporary housing options for pets in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the area.

“We’re still remaining committed to saving animals in need and caring for ours in house,” Sutton said.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.