Can cats get the coronavirus? Well, that depends.
Short answer? If you’re referring to SARS-Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2)—what is more commonly called COVID-19 in humans—yes, your cat can get SARS-CoV-2. That said, please know that it is really, really rare!
Attention-grabbing headlines about coronavirus are just that—they are attention grabbing. After all, look at the numbers. It’s estimated that there are at least 400 million cats in the world. And as devastating as SARS-Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) has been, to date there have been less than two dozen cases of SARS-CoV-2 in domesticated or zoo animals.* There is also no evidence that pets are the source of infection for people. (Rather, it’s thought that humans are giving it to their pets.) You can see an updated list by the United States Department of Agriculture here or on specific animal infections from the American Veterinary Medical Association here.
*Back in April 2020, several tigers and lions living at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Bronx Zoo were diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2. The source of infection was thought to be from an asymptomatic zookeeper. Thankfully, all the cats are doing well to date.
Coronavirus in dogs and cats
The first “positive” cat that made headlines was from Belgium. There is some conjecture that inappropriate samples were done (e.g., bodily fluids like feces and vomitus) and that veterinary professionals were not involved here. The first “positive” dog in the United States (a pug from North Carolina) also was later identified—but upon further review and assessment by veterinary professionals, it was deemed negative. More recently, a symptomatic, sick cat was diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 in my own home state (Minnesota) while a dog (German shepherd) was recently diagnosed in New York. This dog lived with two owners, one who had tested positive for COVID-19 and the second who had symptoms consistent with COVID-19. The other dog had virus-specific antibodies, but never developed clinical signs of disease.
Experimentally, several studies have also shown that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted efficiently in rhesus macaque, hamsters, ferrets, and cats, but poorly in dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks.** Measurable blood antibody levels to SARS-CoV-2 have also been identified in cats (in China).**
** These two papers are still pending peer review publication, at date of this blog release.
But what is the real risk? Can cats get the coronavirus? (Or give it to us?)
Is coronavirus in cats contagious to humans?
First, be aware that dogs and cats typically get a different type of coronavirus than SARS-CoV-2. Canine coronaviruses (CCoVs) typically just result in diarrhea. The coronavirus that I’ve written about in cats typically results in a really rare but potentially deadly disease called Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). There are dog and cat vaccines for these other types of coronavirus, but they aren’t as commonly used and will not help with SARS-CoV-2. Again, please know that FIP is totally different than the current SARS-CoV-2, but interestingly enough, remdesivir may be the same life-saving antidote for FIP and human COVID-19!
More importantly, please don’t freak out too much yet. Statistically, the likelihood that your cat will get it is pretty low: It's rare, but possible. The bigger risk is if you or another (human) two-legged family member are symptomatic, sick or asymptomatically shedding COVID-19, as you can pass it to your pets. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and the AVMA does recommend social distancing with pets to prevent exposure to your pets.
So, what should cat parents do right now?
- Keep your cats indoors at all times during this pandemic (and ideally for at least the next year, as we are worried that SARS-CoV-2 can potentially get into our feral cat population, resulting in a chronic population of exposed animals!)
- If you or a family member are sick with SARS-CoV-2, see if someone else can care for your cat(s). If that is not an option, make sure to wash your hands before and after handling your cat. Always wear a mask, gloves, and PPE when near your cat.
- Ideally quarantine your cat(s) into one room away from the exposed person. Also, avoid snuggling, being kissed or licked by, petting, or sharing food or bedding with your cat(s) if sick.
- Social distance with your pets. Don’t let your cat interact with anyone outside of your “bubble” (e.g., family, environment).
- Be prepared. Just in case of quarantine or illness, please make sure to have at least 2-4 weeks of food and medication for your cat(s) readily available.
Coronavirus symptoms in cats
If your cat is showing symptoms—for example, respiratory illness—please contact your veterinarian and let them know if you or anyone near you have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. But know that if your cat is showing signs like sneezing, runny eyes, and discharge from the nose, it’s more likely an upper respiratory infection.
Is there a test for coronavirus in cats?
Several veterinary diagnostic laboratories (e.g., IDEXX) do provide testing now for dogs and cats using PCR testing. FYI, please don’t bring your cat directly to your veterinarian if you are positive—see if anyone in your household can. Please also call ahead, as many veterinarians are curbside-only during the pandemic to keep everyone safe.
But don’t worry about getting your cat(s) routinely tested for SARS-CoV-2 right now, especially if everyone is healthy. And please don’t abandon or surrender your cat(s) during this time—again, the likelihood of spread is very, very low!
Stay calm and social distance
As a veterinarian, I always tell people that social distancing with pets is hard. However, we do it to protect both ourselves (two-legged) and our pets. Remember, pets get COVID-19 from us. It's unlikely that we get it from them!
Honestly, I can barely find a test for myself at this time! Routine testing of your cat for SARS-CoV-2 is not warranted at this time unless your cat is showing signs of respiratory illness. So, please don't rush off to your veterinarian requesting a test for this. First of all, most veterinary visits are for emergency or essential treatment during the pandemic or #shelterathome.
Keep in mind that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted person-to-person, not person-to-pet or pet-to-person. So far, there have been no definitive reported cases of pet-to-human transmission.
COVID-19 has us all stressed out right now. Not only are we worried about the financial impact of losing jobs and keeping our loved ones and ourselves safe, but now we’re worried about our cats getting coronavirus! When in doubt, go to reliable, accurate resources like the Centers for Disease Control, AVMA, or WSAVA for up-to-date information about SARS-CoV-2 in pets.
- CDC: When and How to Wash Hands
- American Veterinary Medical Association: COVID-19
- Confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in animals in the United States
Cover photo by José Alejandro Cuffia on Unsplash