As the COVID-19 pandemic is progressing, many of us are worried not just about our own health, but that of our pets as well.
Can the coronavirus infect our kitties? Are they at risk? And can they infect other cats or even humans? What can we do as cat owners to minimize any associated risks?
We’ve set out to get some evidence-based answers to these questions by interviewing Dr. Sarah Caddy, a clinical research fellow at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID). Dr. Caddy is also a qualified veterinary surgeon with a Diploma from the American College of Veterinary Microbiology.
Q: Can cats become infected with SARS-CoV-2? If so, do they get sick with COVID-19? Can they shed the virus and infect other cats or people?
A: A new study has shown that if you give cats a large dose of virus up their nose, they will become infected with SARS-CoV-2. However, it is important to remember that was in an experimental setting, not your average home. It is unlikely that our pet cats would be exposed that that amount of virus.
Can cats infect other cats? In the experiment described above, the scientists did show that if you keep an infected cat in a small cage next to an uninfected cat for several days continuously, then there is a chance that the neighboring cat can also be infected. In most households, this scenario is very unlikely to occur. The most important message is that we have no evidence yet that infected cats can infect humans.
Q: What symptoms do cats have when infected?
A: At the moment is it unclear whether cats can get ill if they become infected with SARS-CoV-2. The single experimental study published so far gave very little information on clinical signs. There is a single case report of a sick cat in Belgium that was positive for the virus, but we don’t know whether the illness was caused by SARS-CoV-2 or something unrelated.
Q: What should owners do if they suspect they’ve come into contact with the virus? Is it necessary to stay away from their pets?
A: If you have symptoms of the virus, or are self-isolating for any reason, the latest advice from the British Veterinary Association (BVA)
is to keep your cats indoors if possible. This will reduce the risk of them potentially spreading the virus, either on their fur, or through
the very low chance they become infected themselves. Vets know that some cats will not be able to kept solely indoors, and the main advice in
these cases is simply to maintain good hand hygiene.
Q: Is SARS-CoV-2 similar to other coronaviruses that affect cats? If so, in what ways?
Feline coronavirus is very different from SARS-CoV-2. Feline coronavirus has been infecting cats for decades and exists in two forms; the mild form usually causes no symptoms or mild diarrhea, whereas the severe form causes the highly fatal disease called feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).
Q: Do cats build up an immunity to other kinds of coronavirus? Are there vaccines that protect cats against these viruses?
Almost all cats have antibodies against feline coronavirus by the time they are 4 months old. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association does not recommend vaccinating against this virus.
Q: Are all cats equally vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 or other coronaviruses? Are older cats more susceptible?
A study from 2003 showed that cats could be experimentally infected with SARS-CoV. There is no evidence to show older cats are more susceptible to the virus. The recent experimental study of SARS-CoV-2 suggested that cats less than three months old were more susceptible to infection.
Q: Can the coronavirus that affects cats be passed to other animals?
There have been no reports of feline coronavirus being transmitted to other animals, and thankfully there is no evidence that cats can spread SARS-CoV-2 to other species.
Q: In your opinion, might the worldwide search for a Covid-19 vaccine or treatment eventually lead to increased research into feline coronaviruses (FCoV) in general and feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIPV) in particular?
There is certainly more interest in coronavirus research than ever before! It is possible that drugs targeting SARS-CoV-2 could help treat FIP, but of course, cats tolerate drugs very differently to humans e.g. HIV drugs are not very useful against FIV.
Unfortunately developing a vaccine against feline coronavirus is a real challenge as antibodies against the mild form of the virus can actually make FIP worse. All of the new vaccine approaches being tested for SARS-CoV-2 will certainly improve our understanding of immunity to coronaviruses though, so I am hopeful that cats will get to benefit eventually!
Q: What can you tell us about the recent report of lions and tigers becoming infected with the virus at the Bronx zoo? Could that mean that felines are likely to contract COVID-19?
A: We don’t know whether big cats are more susceptible to the virus, but they could be. The genome of tigers differs from that of domestic cats by 5%. By comparison, the genome of humans is only 1.4% different from that of chimpanzees. At this point, it seems like we can’t apply too much of this tiger outbreak to domestic cats.
We’d like to thank Dr Caddy for helping us bring reliable information to cat owners.
Scientists across the world are now studying COVID-19 carefully. New information comes to light every day. Please make sure you only rely on reputable resources to get your information from. Here are some good sites to follow –
As far as we know at this point, the best way to protect your cats is by protecting yourself. Follow these guidelines carefully. More than anything, stay at home and keep your distance from other people. Please stay safe!