Can Cats Spread COVID-19 to Other Cats?
Veterinary teams should be ready to address questions regarding cats and COVID-19 with concerned pet owners to help ease fear and encourage responsible behavior.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reports that scientists from the United States and Japan found that, in a laboratory setting, cats can become infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) and may be able to pass the virus to other cats.¹
Cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection have been confirmed in pet cats in New York, Belgium, and Hong Kong, as well as in lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo. It was reported that all had contracted the virus from infected humans—owners or zookeepers—taking care of the wide range of cats.
New research on cats and COVID-19
Scientists from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Tokyo led the study, which included a renowned international virologist. The protocol involved researchers administering SARS-CoV-2, isolated from a human patient, to 3 cats. The next day, the nasal passages of the cats were swabbed, and researchers were able to detect the virus in 2 of the animals. Within 3 days, they detected the virus in all 3 cats.
The testing protocol then found the researchers placing another cat (that had not been administered the SARS-CoV-2 virus) in each of the three infected cats’ cages. This was followed by researchers taking nasal and rectal swabs from all six cats to assess the presence of the virus. Within six days, nasal swabs confirmed all of the previously uninfected cats were shedding virus.1,2 None of the rectal swabs contained virus.
Although the cats did not exhibit signs or symptoms of disease, they were found to shed the virus for 6 days. Additionally, each of the cats eventually cleared the virus.
So, what does this mean? This study suggests that cats may become infected with the virus when exposed to people or other cats positive for SARS-CoV-2. In an earlier study, another team of scientists also found cats (along with ferrets) could become infected with and potentially transmit the virus.³
The research team concluded that more research is warranted to glean an understanding of the ability for cats to transmit the virus to humans. Thus far, there is no evidence that they can.
What should veterinary teams be prepared for after this finding? Worried owners thinking their pet cat will contract the virus and pass the virus to the family. Additionally, owners of multi-cat households will worry that all cats will become infected and potentially pass the virus to humans.
How to discuss COVID-19 with cat owners
Here are some FAQs veterinary professionals may need to address with concerned pet owners:
Q: Can cats pass COVID-19 to humans?
A: The research team involved in the latest study concluded that more research is warranted to glean an understanding of the ability for cats to transmit the virus to humans. Thus far, there is no evidence that they can. Humans remain the biggest risk to other humans in transmission of the virus. There is no evidence cats readily transmit the virus to humans, nor are there documented cases in which humans have become ill with COVID-19 because of contact with cats.²
Q: Will all my cats become infected with COVID-19?
A: The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) pointed out that the new research was conducted in a research lab setting. Therefore, it is not clear at this time whether cats can be as easily infected in the real world or infect other cats in the home as readily. Additionally, to date there have only been a handful of animals that have tested positive for COVID-19 across the world. The new study was looking at the potential for transmission and states that more research is warranted.
Q: What protocols should veterinary teams recommend to pet owners concerning their pets during the pandemic?
A: Regarding pets, the AVMA continues to encourage following the CDC’s recommendations:4,5
• Do not let pets interact with people or other animals outside the household.
• Keep pet cats indoors to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
• Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least 6 feet from other people and animals.
• Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.
For pet owners who are sick with COVID-19, whether suspected or confirmed, it is recommended to restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as the owner would around other people.4,5
• When possible, have another member of your household care for your pets while you are sick.
• Avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food or bedding.
• If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wear a cloth face covering and wash your hands before and after you interact with them.
Times are extremely stressful. New research is published and pet owners’ concerns are heightened. Veterinary teams are the go-to for questions relating to COVID-19 and pets. Take each question as it comes. Listen and give fact-based answers in a calm and reassuring tone. Be knowledgeable and positive—and, above all, be kind.
1. Halfmann PJ, Hatta M, Chiba S, et al. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Domestic Cats. NEJM. May 13, 2020. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2013400?query=featured_coronavirus Accessed May 14,2020.
2. Tyrrell K. Study confirms cats can become infected with and may transmit COVID-19 to other cats. University of Wisconsin. https://news.wisc.edu/study-confirms-cats-can-become-infected-with-and-may-transmit-covid-19-to-other-cats/ Accessed May 14, 2020.
3. Shi J, Wen Z, Zhong G, et al. Susceptibility of ferrets, cats, dogs, and other domesticated animals to SARS-coronavirus 2. Science. 2020 April 8.
4. USDA. Confirmation of COVID-19 in Two Pet Cats in New York. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/newsroom/news/sa_by_date/sa-2020/sars-cov-2-animals Accessed April 22, 2020.
5. AVMA. SARS-CoV-2 in pets. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/covid-19/sars-cov-2-animals-including-pets Accessed April 23, 2020.