MADISON, Wis. — A new study has worrying news for pet owners at risk from the coronavirus pandemic. Researchers say cats can become infected with COVID-19 from contact with human patients and then transmit the illness to other felines.
The research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), studied a group of cats who had been exposed to a person with SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19. Within three days, all three cats who were in contact with the human had the illness.
The study, led by Prof. Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, then placed a healthy cat with each of the infected pets. Within six days, COVID-19 was found in the nasal swabs of all six animals.
Although the team confirmed that the virus is definitely contagious among felines, none of the cats showed any signs of the illness and all of them eventually cleared the infection.
“That was a major finding for us — the cats did not have symptoms,” Kawaoka said in a university release. The school adds that Kawaoka is part of a team working on a COVID-19 vaccine called CoroFlu.
The NEJM study cites previous research by Chinese scientists who found that cats and ferrets could be infected and pass COVID-19 to other animals. Researchers say humans transmit the virus through contact with respiratory droplets and saliva.
Concern Grows For Protecting Pets Amid Rising Fears
“It’s something for people to keep in mind,” study researcher Peter Halfmann added. “If they are quarantined in their house and are worried about passing COVID-19 to children and spouses, they should also worry about giving it to their animals.”
Both the World Organization for Animal Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say humans still pose the biggest risk for transmitting COVID-19, not felines. They add that no cases of a cat transmitting the coronavirus to a human have been documented. Officials say there is “no justification in taking measures against companion animals that may compromise their welfare.”
“It’s a stressful time for everyone, and now, more than ever, people need the comfort and support that pets provide,” said Sandra Newbury, director of the UW–Madison Shelter Medicine Program.
How Can Owners Keep Their Pets Safe?
The study notes that humans have been documented giving the illness to cats of all sizes; even lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo in New York.
Kawaoka and Halfmann recommend pet owners keep their cats indoors to limit their contact with other people or animals. They say anyone who has already tested positive for COVID-19 should avoid contact with their pet as much as possible.
Veterinary care and CDC officials have also been working on creating guidelines for shelters taking care of pets whose owners have been hospitalized by the pandemic. Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, says pet owners should speak with their vet about whether they should have their animals tested.
With over four million people infected with COVID-19 worldwide, officials urge pet owners to also keep their tiny loved ones in mind when preparing for the worst.
“Animal owners should include pets and other animals in their emergency preparedness planning, including keeping on hand a two-week supply of food and medications,” Ruthanne Chun of UW Veterinary Care said. Chun adds pet owners should also have someone in mind to take care of their tiny companions if you need to be hospitalized during the crisis.