Cats can get coronavirus and infect each other but pet owners need not panic, says study

Pet owners should not panic as there is no evidence they can spread it to humans. The study was conducted based on lab experiments. It is not representative of real-life interactions between people and their pets


                            Cats can get coronavirus and infect each other but pet owners need not panic, says study
(Getty Images)

Cats can get infected with the new coronavirus and they can transmit it to other cats. These are the findings of a new study, which found that the virus transmits in cats via respiratory droplets. But the study does not say that cats can spread it to humans.

“We investigated the susceptibility of ferrets and animals in close contact with humans to SARS-CoV-2. We found that SARS-CoV-2 replicates poorly in dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks, but efficiently in ferrets and cats. We found that the virus transmits in cats via respiratory droplets,” says the research team from China. It includes researchers from the State Key Laboratory of Veterinary Biotechnology, Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China; and the National High Containment Laboratory for Animal Diseases Control and Prevention, Harbin, China.

Currently, a pre-print version of the study has been published. This implies this is a preliminary report that has not been peer-reviewed. According to bioRxiv, where the study has been published, such papers should not be regarded as conclusive, or guide clinical practice/health-related behavior. 

The results are also based on lab experiments in which a small number of animals were infected with high doses of the virus. It is not representative of real-life interactions between people and their pets.

In the study, the research team evaluated the susceptibility of different model laboratory animals, as well as companion and domestic animals to COVID-19. All experiments with infectious COVID-19 were performed in the biosafety level 4 and animal biosafety level 4 facilities in the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute (HVRI) of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS). 

The research team found that SARS-CoV-2 replicates poorly in dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks, but efficiently in ferrets and cats. (Getty Images)

The team infected five 8-month-old domestic cats with COVID-19 virus through the nose. Two of the cats were euthanized six days later to evaluate viral replication in their organs. The researchers detected viral RNA and infectious virus particles in their upper respiratory tracts. However, viral RNA was not detected in any of the lung samples from either of these animals.

In a transmission study, three other cats infected with the virus were placed in separate cages within an isolator. To monitor respiratory droplet transmission, an uninfected cat was placed in a cage adjacent to each of the infected cats. “It was difficult to perform regular nasal wash collection on the subadult cats because they were aggressive. To avoid possible injury, we only collected feces from these cats and checked for viral RNA in their organs after euthanasia,” says the team. The researchers found viral RNA in the feces of just one of the cats exposed to the infected cat, which indicates that transmission happened via respiratory droplets. The researchers also detected antibodies against COVID-19 detected in three infected cats and one exposed cat. 

“In the transmission study, viral RNA was detected in the feces of two virus-inoculated subadult cats, and in all three virus-inoculated subadult cats. Viral RNA was detected in the feces of one exposed cat,” says the study. 

It adds, “The subadult cats with viral RNA-positive feces were euthanized on day 11, and viral RNA was detected in the soft palate and tonsils of the virus-inoculated animal and in the nasal turbinate, soft palate, tonsils, and trachea of the exposed animal, indicating that respiratory droplet transmission had occurred in this pair of cats.”

The team replicated the “replication and transmission studies” in juvenile cats -- aged 70–100 days. “The results indicate that COVID-19 can replicate efficiently in cats, with younger cats being more permissive and, perhaps more importantly, the virus can transmit between cats via respiratory droplets,” says the team.

Results of the study conducted in ferrets indicate that SARS-CoV-2 can replicate in the upper respiratory tract of ferrets for up to eight days, without causing severe disease or death.

The researchers also investigated the susceptibility of dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks to the virus. Results for dogs (five 3-month-old beagles) indicate that they have low susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2. However, in the case of the others, analysis shows that livestock including “pigs, chickens, and ducks are not susceptible to SARS-CoV-2.”

Results of the study conducted in ferrets indicate that the virus can replicate in the upper respiratory tract of ferrets for up to eight days, without causing severe disease or death. (Getty Images)

What are the current guidelines?

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, (AVMA), while two dogs (Hong Kong) and one cat (Belgium) have been reported to have been infected with COVID-19, infectious disease experts and multiple international and domestic human and animal health organizations agree there is no evidence at this point to indicate that pets spread COVID-19 to other animals, including people.

“If you are not ill with COVID-19, you can interact with your pet as you normally would, including walking, feeding, and playing. You should continue to practice good hygiene during those interactions,” says AVMA. This includes, for example, washing hands before and after interacting with pets, ensuring pets are kept well-groomed, and regularly cleaning their food and water bowls, bedding material, and toys.

“Out of an abundance of caution, it is recommended that those ill with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus. Have another member of your household take care of walking, feeding, and playing with your pet. If you have a service animal or you must care for your pet, then wear a facemask; don’t share food, kiss, or hug them; and wash your hands before and after any contact with them,” recommends the association.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), also says there is no evidence in the US to suggest that any animals, including pets, livestock, or wildlife, might be a source of COVID-19 infection at this time. “However, because all animals can carry germs that can make people sick, it’s always a good idea to practice healthy habits around pets and other animals,” it says.

CDC has not received any reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19. The experts recommend further studies to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19.

The CDC also advises that if a person is sick with COVID-19 (either suspected or confirmed), they should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just like they would around other people. “Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus. This can help ensure both you and your animals stay healthy. When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick, says the CDC. 

Disclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.