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A cat-owning client tested positive for COVID. What do you tell them?

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Because it’s possible they’re worried they’ll give it to their cat.

We already knew that cats were susceptible to feline coronavirus before recent studies found that they can contract SARS-CoV-2. Factor in the confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 in two pet cats in New York last April, and cat owners are understandably concerned.

So the last thing COVID-positive cat owners need is the added stress of passing it on to their cats.

NEWStat turned to Renee Rucinsky, DVM, DABVP (Feline), owner of AAHA-accredited Mid-Atlantic Cat Hospital in Queenstown, Maryland, and a member of the AAHA Diabetes Management Guidelines Task Force, for her take.

Rucinsky’s had a couple of clients who tested positive for COVID-19 but says they didn’t give it to their cats, who are fine and showing no symptoms. And, for the most part, her clients aren’t showing too much worry. “Overall, people haven’t seemed terribly concerned” about their cats catching COVID, she said, but credits that in part to intense client education on COVID-19 early on: “We were very aggressive in the beginning on getting information out.”

“When the story about the cats at the Bronx Zoo came out, people were a little concerned,” she concedes, but “we were able to reassure them that cats were not primary carriers or victims of this disease.”

But some clients were not reassured: “We’ve had a few people [who are] afraid that they’d possibly give it to their cats, who would then have symptoms and die.” Rucinsky is sympathetic. “The biggest concern that people discussed with me is what would happen to their cats if [the owners] got sick and succumbed to the virus.” She calls those discussions heartbreaking.

Out west in Idaho, another veterinarian deals with the same concerns from cat-owning clients and agrees with Rucinsky that those clients are perhaps less worried than might be expected—though there are exceptions.

Hazel Carney, DVM, MS, DABVP (Feline), a veterinarian at AAHA-accredited WestVet Emergency and Specialty Center in Garden City, Idaho, told NEWStat, “Every once in a while, I’ll get the [client] who just comes unglued [about COVID],” Carney says with a laugh, “But she comes unglued if the cat has a hangnail.”

For 30 years, Carney has treated cats exclusively (she refers to herself as “one of the oldest living cat-only doctors left in captivity”), and she’s learned the art of giving advice that both educates and reassures cat owners. She’s had to do plenty of both during the pandemic.

“They always ask, ‘Can the cat get it?’” she says. “And we say, ‘Yes, there is a very, very slim possibility, if you’re positive, [that] you could transmit the [virus] to your cat.” Then she explains that there’s a large variability in the susceptibility of different species, so, theoretically, any animal exposed to the virus is (again, theoretically) potentially susceptible. “Plus, it’s a coronavirus, and cats have receptors for coronaviruses.”

Here’s what Carney advises her clients point by point:

  • Do not get rid of your cat if you or the cat are COVID positive. The psychological and immunological benefits of cat companionship during this stressful time greatly surpass the risk of disease transmission.
  • Only very rarely will a COVID-positive person transmit the disease to their cat. Transmission occurs just as in humans, via respiratory droplets.
  • If you test positive and your cat shows signs of clinical disease such as fever, upper respiratory congestion, lethargy, diarrhea, or neurologic signs, seek veterinary care for your cat and notify the hospital in advance that you’re COVID positive so the staff can take precautions.
  • Although by the time you test positive you’ve already likely exposed your cat to the virus, use common sense precautions as you would to protect other household members:
    • Do: Wear a mask if you snuggle or sleep with your cat, and wash your hands before and after handling her.
    • Don’t: Kiss your cat or share food or food dishes.
    • If your cat is immunocompromised, it may be wise to more stringently isolate yourself: let a negative individual in the household care for the cat for a couple of weeks and limit your contact with the cat.
  • Testing is available now for cats through many labs. Feline coronavirus (enteric and FIP) do not cause a positive COVID test.

That last point regarding FIP may be particularly important for clients to know—Rucinsky says she’s had a few patients diagnosed with FIP in the past several months, which has caused unnecessary stress for their owners over and above the diagnosis itself. “Trying to explain that FIP is a mutation of a coronavirus, but not COVID-19, is sometimes a hard concept to convey to nonmedical people,” she notes. 

As for Carney, a big part of keeping clients calm about COVID is a hospital’s response to their concerns when they call: “If we just act very accepting, stick to the facts, and assure them of what, so far as we know, is the true minimal risk, then we don’t let it escalate.”

Photo credit: © iStock/oshcherban