It’s true that cats can contract COVID-19. Let’s look at how, and what you can do to protect your own feline companion.
When I wrote my first article about cats and COVID-19 back in March of 2020, there were no confirmed cases. Since then, a number of felines, including large cats in zoos as well as domestic cats, have contracted the virus. So what does this mean to you as a cat parent? What should you watch for in your feline companion, and what do we need to do to keep our cats and ourselves safe? This article looks at the latest discoveries about COVID-19 in cats.
Cats can get COVID for the same reasons we do
Early on, scientists determined that the virus binds to ACE2 and co-opts its function for entry into cells. ACE2 receptors line the noses, lungs, and guts of human and cats. Although there are small differences, feline and human ACE2 are essentially the same.
What this means is that cats can get this disease the same way humans can. Airborne virus is breathed in, infects nasal cells, and disseminates throughout the body. Moreover, cats clean themselves extensively, opening up a second potential route of oral infection that would be rare in humans.
While both humans and cats can transmit COVID-19 to other cats, there have been no reports of a cat-to-human case.
Do cats give the virus to each other?
Several highly-publicized studies have demonstrated that, in experimental settings, cats can infect other cats with the virus. However, the data is murky on cat-to-cat transmission in COVID-19 positive households. Demonstrating this type of transmission is difficult since too many variables are involved, such as a cat’s preference for one family member, room, or resource.
However, several groups are providing new data on the prevalence of positive cats in homes with COVID-19 cases. In general, the studies report limited transmission, although larger surveys may reveal more information in upcoming months. “While we have had no housecat swabs test positive for virus, we have preliminary data that some are antibody positive, but these positives are not correlated to serious disease in these animals,” says Tufts University researcher, Kaitlyn Sawatzki, PhD, who has been surveying cat-loving households in the New England area.
COVID-19 testing for cats
Part of the reason our understanding of feline infections remains incomplete is because of issues surrounding COVID-19 testing for cats. Few tests are approved for animal use. To obtain a test for a cat, approval from the state veterinarian is usually required. Costs add extra complexities, making the window of opportunity extremely narrow for detecting active cases.
This means we are possibly underreporting the actual number of cases in cats. One thing is clear, though — if cats were presenting more routinely with COVID-19 symptoms, we would see increased testing and scientific concern, but we are not.
Keep in mind that for indoor cats, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is extremely low.
- The best prevention is to keep your cat at home, and limit non-household people from interacting with him.
- If you or someone in your household has suspected or confirmed COVID-19, limit or avoid interactions with your cat during the quarantine period. “Treat your cat as another member of your household if you are COVID positive and avoid close contact as much as possible,” says UC Davis veterinarian, Dr. Kate Hurley. “Alas, this is not the time to have him sleep in your bed or cuddle up with you.”
- Studies show that cats shed virus in their feces, albeit for only a short time after infection. So it’s important to keep areas clean and disinfected, especially in multi-cat households with communal litter boxes. Scoop litter regularly. Wear a mask and gloves. Double bag the scooped material; some litters are dusty and the particles can disperse into the air. If possible, have an air-purifying unit close by.
- Last but far from least, be sure your cat enjoys a healthy lifestyle to help keep his immune system working well.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19 in cats?
Sick cats are not always easy to recognize. Early signs of infection may be missed or ignored. If you or a family member has COVID-19, watch for lethargy, breathing issues, respiratory discharges, coughing, sneezing, and diarrhea in your cat. Report any symptoms to your veterinarian as soon as possible. A sick cat should be isolated for 14 days in a safe and comfortable place in your home.
As the pandemic wears on, science will continue learning more about the COVID-19 virus in humans and other species, including cats. To keep abreast of new developments, look for the best scientifically-guided information. For example, the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine program has a very detailed website devoted to COVID-19 support for both clinicians and the public. It offers practical advice for animal parents, fosters and adopters, along with a long list of web resources, including the most up to date CDC, AVMA and WSAVA guidelines.