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Cat in UK Diagnosed with COVID-19: Update on Pets and COVID


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A 6-year old female Siamese cat has become the first animal in the UK to be infected with SARS CoV-2 causing COVID-19 according to the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Christine Middlemiss. The cat’s infection was confirmed following tests at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) laboratory in Weybridge, England, on July 22, according to a press release from the UK government.

The cat showed mild signs of illness but has since completely recovered. Only a handful of companion animals around the world have tested positive for COVID-19. While there is evidence that cats can potentially transmit the virus to one another; in dogs there is no such evidence.  There is zero indication that dogs or cats can transmit COVID-19 to humans. We give the virus to them, not the other way around.
Margaret Hosie, professor of comparative virology at Glasgow University, who leads the screening program for pets and COVID, advised cat owners to “observe very careful hygiene”. She said: “If you have any respiratory signs, then be sure to catch your cough or sneeze into a disposable tissue, and wash your hands before you handle your cat. Don’t kiss your cat. Don’t have the cat sleeping in a bed with you, and don’t share food with the cat.”

UK health officials agree with American health officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association, if you happen to be ill with COVID-19 do distance yourself from your pet(s) as much as possible, perhaps having others in the household take over care. If it’s a dog who doesn’t mind, a vacation at a friend or neighbor’s is advisable.

If a cat or dog is sneezy, as always, contact your veterinarian. Still, it’s far more likely that there’s another explanation for your pet’s signs than the novel corona virus.

Counting COVID Positive Pets

The good news is that diagnostic labs Antech and IDEXX have now tested thousands of dogs and cats with only (according to my count) two cats in New York State testing positive in the U.S. Add to this, a team of Tufts University researchers testing hundreds more animals looking for clues on whether they can get the virus and pass it along to humans, or vice versa – and no positives had been identified.
Due to potentially flawed testing methods, some presumed positives in pets worldwide remain uncertain. For sure, a cat in Carver County, MN and another in Springfield, IL tested positive in addition to the two cats in New York State. A cat in Hong Kong and a cat in France have also been confirmed and perhaps a cat in Belgium. Few of any of these cats appeared sick; some had mild illness.

Dogs can get COVID-19 as well, though these events are even more rare. In early June, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in a German Shepherd Dog in New York state. This is the first dog in the United States to test positive for SARS-CoV-2. A German Shepherd dog and a Pomeranian in Hong Kong were also positive. A Pug in North Carolina which received tons of press and was originally thought to have the illness now likely turns out just to be a Pug that sometimes coughs.

Worldwide, according Johns Hopkins University and Medicine, the world is closing in on 17 million positives for SARS Cov-2, with over 148,000 deaths. Experts concur due to testing issues in many nations and other factors, far more people than reported have likely been infected. And due to reporting issues and politics of some nations, far more deaths around the world as well. The number of companion animals with positives for COVID-19 is a challenge to discern since testing methods in some presumed positives have been questioned, but still the total is under 35 individuals. No doubt some dogs and cats – who knows how many – would have been positive if tested but never had symptoms or signs of disease and in some nations testing for pets isn’t available. Still, it’s clear that COVID-19 isn’t easily transmitted to dogs or cats. And only two companion animals are known to have died, an elderly Pomeranian with other health issue in Hong Kong and a German Shepherd dog in the U.S., named Buddy, from New York State, who likely also had cancer. It’s unclear what role (if any) COVID-19 played in the deaths of these two dogs. As far as we know, dogs and cats don’t die of COVID-19 and only rarely even get sick. Simply put, SARS CoV-2  is a human illness. 

According to a new Italian study (published July 23 in BioRxiv), a large-scale study to assessing SARS-CoV-2 infection in 817 companion animals living in northern Italy, sampled at a time of frequent human infection. No animals tested PCR positive. However, 3.4 percent of dogs and 3.9 percent of cats had measurable SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibody titers, with dogs from COVID-19 positive households being significantly more likely to test positive than those from COVID-19 negative households. The suggestion is that many more companion animals may be infected that was previously thought but may be absolutely asymptomatic. If they don’t spread disease, does that matter? That’s a big question if even the assertion is true. In fact, this study suggests (unlike other studies) that dogs are as susceptible (or even more so) compared to cats.

How About Captive or Wild Animals?

Malayan tigers Bronx Zoo

And it’s possible (though still unknown) if the Malayan tigers and African lions at the Bronx Zoo with COVID were infected by an asymptomatic keeper, or if one tiger (named Maya) was infected (the first tiger discovered with COVID-19), and then spread the disease to the other big cats.

However, it appears that animals in the family called mustelids, like otters, polecats, weasels, and especially mink are biologically more susceptible to SARS viruses. Due to outbreaks,  all mink on affected farms in the Netherlands have been culled. The concern is that minks may potentially transmit the disease back to people – though thus far this has not been reported. It seems some domestic cats have tested positive for COVID who live on mink farms. It’s not likely the two species would have contact with one another, since mink could try to eat the cats. Perhaps, it was the mink manure which cats were exposed – though no one knows for sure how cats were infected. Other mink farms in other nations have also been affected.

Domestic ferrets are also mustelids and there’s a real concern, but little is known. In a sense this is good – because there’s not been a problem with pet ferrets reported sick with COVID. It’s not surprising to see that ferrets are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, as described in a small pre-proof manuscript from the journal Cell Host & Microbe (Kim et al. 2020).

So far, no mustelid in a zoo has been reported as a positive. It’s also assumed that primates are likely susceptible (since they are susceptible to many human viruses), but zoos know that and have been careful. So far, no positives in monkeys, great apes, lemurs or other non-human primates.

The American Veterinary Medical Association offers a comprehensive review of SARS CoV-2 and pets.

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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