Confirmation of COVID-19 in two pet cats in New York raises new concerns


Yes, cats can catch it.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) today announced the first confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection in two pet cats in New York state.

They’re the first pets in the US to test positive for the virus.

Both were diagnosed after exhibiting mild respiratory illness and both are expected to make a full recovery. SARS-CoV-2 infections have been reported in only a handful of animals worldwide, mostly (but not always) in those who had close contact with a person with COVID-19.

The virus was also confirmed two weeks ago in a tiger in New York City’s Bronx zoo. In that case, the tiger was presumed to have been exposed to the virus through an asymptomatic zookeeper who tested positive for the virus.

Cats, both wild and domestic, are susceptible to feline coronavirus, but until recently, it was unknown whether they could contract SARS-CoV-2. A new study out of China found that cats may be able to infect each other, and scientists are busy trying to learn what other species may be at risk.

NEWStat reached out to J. Scott Weese, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM, an associate professor in the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and contributing reviewer of AAHA’s Infection Control, Prevention, and Biosecurity Guidelines, to ask whether the news about the two pet cats testing positive in New York changes the conversation about pets and COVID-19 in North America.

“Not at all,” Weese said. “We’ve been saying this was likely to occur for months. It just reinforces our message [about] the need for basic, common sense practices.”

Weese said that pet owners don’t need to be any more worried about their pets catching COVID-19 than they already were, but they should be aware. “If people keep their pets away from other people and animals, the only way the pet will get infected is from a household contact. So pets should not be a source of bringing COVID-19 into a household if people socially distance the whole household—including pets.”

Weese emphasizes that the risk to pet health from COVID-19 seems limited.

“Dogs are pretty resistant to disease. Cats, so far, have had relatively mild disease.” If he has any concerns about cat health, they’re regarding older cats with underlying health problems. “But overall, it’s unlikely to pose a significant health threat to cats.”

The most important thing, Weese said, is to “make sure we don’t let pets be a means of spreading COVID-19 outside of the household—to people, other pets, community cats, or wildlife. We want to do our best to make sure this is just a human disease, and that pets don’t play a role.”

IDEXX has announced that they’re making SARS-CoV-2 tests available to veterinarians. NEWStat asked Weese how that news might affect client requests for testing.

“It will increase owner demand, most likely,” Weese concedes, “but routine testing still isn’t warranted. It creates risk if we’re taking an animal who might have been exposed and moving it to a veterinary hospital. The risks to veterinary personnel are hard to justify when there’s no health benefit to the cat [given that] we don’t have a specific treatment.”

Weese’s statement is in accordance with current medical opinion, which the American Veterinary Medical Association sums up on its website: “Routine testing of animals for COVID-19 is not recommended by the AVMA, CDC, USDA, American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD), or National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians.”

As for what veterinarians can tell worried clients who may start asking that their pets be tested, Weese said to remind them that the risk to pets is limited. And the risk from a pet to a pet owner is extremely limited if the pet is socially distancing.

“Serious disease is unlikely and testing won’t change how we manage a patient,” Weese said. “So, relax, keep your pet at home with you, call if you have concerns. But we want to keep the pet in the house with you unless it needs urgent care.”

At this time, AAHA does not recommend that coronavirus vaccines for pets be administered under the premise that it will either limit or prevent COVID-19 in a pet.

Photo credit: © iStock/RyanJLane

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