The first documented cases of U.S. household cats infected with COVID-19 have emerged in New York state, a new government report shows.
Two cats – one in Nassau County, the other in Orange County – appear to have contracted COVID-19 from the humans with whom they lived, a team of veterinarians reported online June 8 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These are the first reported companion animals to contract COVID-19 in the United States, the researchers said.
Transmission occurred from human to cat in both cases, the report noted. Importantly, the authors of the report said that there’s no evidence the cats passed the coronavirus to humans or other cats living in the same household.
“This evidence supports findings to date that animals do not play a substantial role in spreading SARS-CoV-2, although human-to-animal transmission can occur in some situations,” the team wrote.
“Companion animals that test positive for SARS-CoV-2 should be monitored and separated from persons and other animals until they recover.”
The Nassau County cat, a 4-year-old domestic shorthair, developed respiratory illness on March 24 that included sneezing, watery eyes and mild lethargy.
The cat had been living in an apartment with five people, three of whom had COVID-19 symptoms.
The first person’s illness began nine days before the cat became sick. The apartment complex had experienced multiple cases of human COVID-19 around the same time.
The Orange County cat, a 5-year-old Devon Rex, fell ill on April 1 with sneezing, coughing, runny nose, watery eyes, loss of appetite and lethargy. The cat lived with an employee at a Connecticut veterinary clinic who developed COVID-19 symptoms eight days before the cat became sick.
Both cats fully recovered from their COVID-19, according to Dr. Alexandra Newman and colleagues.
These cases are further confirmation that COVID-19 can spread among cats, something noted by a laboratory study published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In that study, three healthy cats contracted COVID-19 after each was paired with an infected cat in their separate lab cage, researchers in the United States and Japan discovered. Within six days, all six cats were shedding coronavirus.
The study concluded that “cats may be a silent intermediate host of [COVID-19], because infected cats may not show any appreciable symptoms that might be recognized by their owners.”
However, one of the researchers said the odds of human-to-cat or cat-to-cat transmission are likely greater than cats passing on the coronavirus to their humans.
“Cats are still much more likely to get COVID-19 from you, rather than you get it from a cat,” researcher Keith Poulsen, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, said in a University of Wisconsin news release.
Another vet agreed. “There has been no evidence yet of people getting COVID from any domestic animal. Coronavirus is no reason to abandon your pets,” Dr. John Howe, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, told HealthDay News in May.
The animal welfare impact
And while the pandemic has resulted in devastating consequences for health systems and economic stability throughout the world, it has also had undesirable, but perhaps not surprising, ramifications for animal welfare. In particular, for veterinary and animal welfare professionals, the wave of fear among the general public is of great concern with respect to how this pandemic will affect pets.
Unintended initial consequences
At the original epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, many residents were forced to leave behind their pets when authorities evacuated people from their homes. Reports suggest that owners left enough food and water to last their pets for a few days until they hoped to be able to return home again. But now, more than 6 weeks later, many owners still have not returned home. Animal welfare organizations in China estimate that, in Hubei alone, tens of thousands of cats and dogs have been left behind, facing starvation and death .
Unfounded fears that pets might spread SARS-CoV-2
Concern also rapidly emerged among pet owners and the general public in late February 2020, when a dog in Hong Kong tested positive for the novel coronavirus. This was considered to be the first known case of potential human-to-animal SARS-CoV-2 transmission .
The 17-year-old male Pomeranian was tested after his owner developed COVID-19. Although the dog had no clinical signs, he was taken to a nearby animal quarantine facility where oral, nasal, and rectal swab specimens were collected from him for SARS-CoV-2 testing. The oral and nasal swabs returned “weak positive” results. Additional swab specimens were collected from the dog on two further occasions over the next five days, and they again tested “weak positive”. The dog remained under mandatory quarantine at the facility for 14 days before returning home. Nevertheless, despite having no signs of clinical illness, the dog died just 2 days after returning home. The cause of death remains unknown because the owner did not consent to post-mortem examination. However, given the dog’s elderly age, and because he reportedly had underlying health conditions, experts believe it is unlikely that his death was related to the positive SARS-CoV-2 test result [, , ].
This first case sparked fears among the public, resulting in acts of animal abuse by people who believed that pets might start to spread the virus to people. One group known as the Urban Construction Administration announced it would kill cats and dogs found outdoors, to prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2. And even officials in Hunan and Zhejiang provinces announced they would begin killing pets that were found in public .
The Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals issued a statement to inform the public that there is no evidence to show that pets can transmit the virus to people, and warning people against compromising animal welfare . But this did little to calm people’s fears, and panic among pet owners and the general public has also spread globally. Anecdotal reports have been widespread in the media and on social media about an increase in the number of pets being abandoned at this time. While many owners fear their animals might transmit SARS-CoV-2 to them, others also now find themselves unemployed and unable to afford to care for a pet .
On the positive side, with many people now finding themselves isolated at home during the pandemic, rates of pet adoptions and fosters at many shelters have also markedly risen—often cancelling out or markedly exceeding the high rates of abandonment. This is good news for people and pets who now get to enjoy the great advantages of the human–animal bond during this unique time of great need. Inevitably, however, some experts worry that many of these pets will be returned to the shelter when life eventually returns to a new normal [, , ].
So, what’s the deal with animals and COVID-19?
The origin of SARS-CoV-2
One common factor linking some of the first patients that were diagnosed with COVID-19 in Wuhan was a history of visiting or working at the local Huanan Seafood Market. This was also reported to be a “wet market” that dealt in the sale of various live animals [, , ]. Because of this, many experts have suggested that the disease in humans originated via initial animal-to-human spread of the novel virus.
The SARS-CoV-2 has been genetically identified and sequenced and shown to be related to other similar known coronaviruses that circulate among bats (such as the SARS coronavirus and the MERS coronavirus) . So, bats are considered to be the most likely natural reservoir of this novel coronavirus.
However, the first case of COVID-19 in Wuhan occurred in a patient who had no link to the seafood market . Also, bats are reported to be rare in markets in China . Although the SARS-CoV-2 may theoretically transmit directly from bats to humans, the evidence so far suggests it more likely spreads indirectly through another animal playing the role of an intermediate host to transmit the virus to humans. Although an intermediary animal species has not yet been definitively identified, it could have been one of the wild live animal species sold at the seafood market in Wuhan.
The idea of this novel virus emerging at the animal-human interface is not a new concept. Zoonotic diseases with a wildlife reservoir have long been recognized as a significant public health problem. Indeed, up to three-quarters of infectious diseases that emerge in humans are known to be zoonotic .
The events that facilitate emergence of new zoonotic diseases and their geographical spread are complex and affected by multiple factors at multiple levels, including those related to the pathogen, environment, humans, and animals. Although we still have much to learn about SARS-CoV-2, a complexity of animal, human, and environmental factors have inevitably played a critical role in its emergence . As such, a One Health approach will eventually be critical as part of the response to this emerging infectious disease.
Traditionally, veterinary professionals have treated animals, medical professionals have treated people, and ecologists have taken care of the environment. However, recognizing the complex interconnectedness of the health of animals, humans, and the environment, the One Health approach eliminates this fragmented strategy. Instead, it uses “a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach—working at the local, regional, national, and global levels”, engaging professionals across many disciplines such as veterinary, human, and environmental health . As such, it aims to improve public health outcomes by understanding and preventing risks that arise at the interface between animals, humans, and their environments .
Pets and SARS-CoV-2
What about the pets that have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2?
So far, despite more than 1 million people around the world having tested positive for the virus, only 4 cases have been reported in which pets have apparently tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. These have involved 2 dogs and 2 cats. In all 4 cases, the animals’ owners were sick with COVID-19 and are believed to be the most likely source of transmission of the virus to their pets. Although neither of the 2 dogs showed any clinical signs, one of the cats did have signs of illness.
Shortly after the Pomeranian in Hong Kong tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, in March 2020, a second dog in Hong Kong also tested positive for the virus. After the second dog’s owner, a 30-year-old woman, was diagnosed with COVID-19, her 2 dogs were sent to the quarantine facility for testing. Oral and nasal swabs from one of them, a German shepherd dog, tested positive for the virus. However, swabs collected from the second, a mixed breed dog, tested negative [7,18].
In late March 2020, health officials in Belgium reported that a cat from Liège province had also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, about 1 week after its owner was diagnosed with COVID-19. Unlike the 2 dogs that tested positive for the virus, the cat did show signs of illness, including diarrhea, vomiting, and difficulty breathing . Samples of vomit and feces from the cat were tested at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Liège and “genetic tests showed high levels of SARS-CoV-2 in those samples”, according to Dr Daniel Desmecht. The cat reportedly recovered after 9 days .
On March 31, officials in Hong Kong reported that a cat was being kept in quarantine after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 via oral, nasal, and rectal swabs. This cat’s owner had also been diagnosed with COVID-19. However, the cat had no clinical signs of illness. .
Does this mean those four pets were infectious?
So far, for the 4 pets in Hong Kong and Belgium, the available clinical and diagnostic information is incomplete. But, based on what we know at this stage from the media accounts, there is no definitive evidence to suggest that any of the animals were actually infectious.
By all accounts, real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests were used to detect SARS-CoV-2 in the 4 pets. However, it is important to remind pet owners and members of the general public that, just because a sample from a pet “tests positive” using this method, this is not necessarily synonymous with the pet “being infectious”. And, in the cases of these 4 pets, we also do not have enough information to know whether they were even truly infected with the virus.
Although RT-PCR is a highly sensitive testing method, a positive result indicates only the presence of viral nucleotides in the sample. However, it does not indicate how those viral particles ended up in the sample in the first place. So, it does not tell us whether the virus actually infected the animals (in which case, the viral particles could be a breakdown product of the infection) or whether viral nucleotides were present in the samples because the animals merely came into direct contact with the virus (perhaps by licking either their sick owners or contaminated surfaces in the home). Thus, the positive RT-PCR results in these pets do not necessarily indicate the presence of viable virus that was infectious and could potentially have put other people (or animals) at risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
So, overall, we must be careful to avoid overinterpreting the positive results in these pets. Certainly, in the case of the cat in Belgium, if the owner consents to serologic testing, this may prove helpful to indicate a previous SARS-CoV-2 infection by detecting the presence of SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies. However, the presence of these antibodies still would not necessarily prove that the SARS-CoV-2 infection had resulted in the cat’s clinical signs.
Interestingly, although not a pet, a female Malayan tiger at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo in New York City also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 on April 5. Officials believe the source of the virus was a zookeeper who was actively shedding virus. The animal was one of several tigers and lions who showed signs of a dry cough. However, because of the need for general anesthesia to collect diagnostic samples from these big cats, this tiger was the only one of the animals with clinical signs that was tested for the virus . Again, at this stage, the significance of this positive result in this tiger and its association with the animal’s clinical signs remain unclear.
But, the cat in Belgium was sick—doesn’t that indicate SARS-CoV-2 infection?
Although the cat in Belgium had diarrhea, vomiting, and difficulty breathing, this constellation of clinical signs isn’t enough to suggest that the cat had full-blown COVID-19, or even true SARS-CoV-2 infection. These clinical signs are relatively nonspecific and can arise in cats in association with various nonspecific and specific conditions. In fact, one confounding factor in the cat’s case is the fact that other coronaviruses do affect cats.
Other coronaviruses are well recognized in cats
Coronaviruses represent a large family of viruses (the Coronaviridae) that can cause a variety of diseases of differing severity in animals as well as in humans. These viruses are well established in different animal species as causes of a range of conditions that predominantly affect the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory system, and nervous system .
Coronaviruses are well recognized as causes of disease in cats. Feline enteric coronavirus (FECV) is a ubiquitous enteric virus in the cat population. And, although it is highly contagious and commonly infects cats via feco-oral transmission, it typically produces either no clinical signs or only mild diarrhea. However, in a small percentage of cats, FECV undergoes mutation to produce feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) virus. This mutant variant of FECV is responsible for causing FIP, a devastating and lethal systemic infection that is considered to be one of the most significant infectious diseases in cats .
Other coronaviruses are also well recognized as causes of disease in dogs
In dogs, canine respiratory coronavirus (CRCoV) affects the respiratory system, typically contributing as one of many pathogenic organisms to cause canine infectious respiratory disease (CIRD), also widely known as “kennel cough”. Infection with CRCoV is usually associated with mild, self-limiting clinical signs that typically are nonspecific and include dry cough, sneezing, and nasal discharge. However, infection with this virus can potentially progress to pneumonia in some cases and has been associated with outbreaks of severe respiratory disease in dogs in shelters and boarding facilities [24,25].
Another distinct coronavirus, canine coronavirus (CCoV), affects the gastrointestinal tract in dogs and can cause gastroenteritis that may range in severity from mild to severe disease. Enteric infection in dogs is usually self-limiting and typically produces either no clinical signs or only mild enteritis .
In contrast to this CCoV which shows only enteric tropism, a pantropic pathogenic variant of CCoV has also been described in association with an outbreak of fatal systemic disease in puppies aged approximately 6–8 weeks old at a pet shop in Italy. The clinical signs in the puppies included fever, lethargy, inappetence, vomiting, hemorrhagic diarrhea, ataxia, and seizures. The animals died 2 days after the onset of clinical signs. At post-mortem examination, lesions were present in multiple tissues, including the intestines, liver, spleen, kidneys, lungs, and lymph nodes. CCoV was also detected in multiple tissues, including the lungs, suggesting the potential for this pathogenic variant to also contribute to the pathogenesis of CIRD .
However, none of these more typical feline or canine coronaviruses are directly associated with the current novel coronavirus outbreak. Despite belonging in the same family of viruses, they are all distinct from the SARS-CoV-2 which is responsible for causing COVID-19.
No evidence that pets play a key role in SARS-CoV-2 transmission
We are still in the early stages of understanding how this novel virus affects humans, let alone animals. So, more time and testing will be necessary to better understand how exactly SARS-CoV-2 behaves in pets. Routine testing of pets for SARS-CoV-2 is not recommended at this time. Instead, it is currently being reserved for cases in which animal and public health officials believe a pet should be tested because it is linked to a person with confirmed COVID-19 . However, some testing has been performed.
To date, officials in Hong Kong have tested samples collected from more than 25 pets living in homes in which their owners either had received confirmed diagnoses of COVID-19 or had been in close contact with someone with the disease. Yet, only 2 dogs and 1 cat from this group have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 .
IDEXX Laboratories, a multinational veterinary diagnostics company, has also developed a PCR-based SARS-CoV-2 test. Although the test is not available for commercial use, the company is actively monitoring for emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in companion animals. So far, IDEXX has analyzed more than 4000 samples from dogs, cats, and horses with respiratory signs. Many of these specimens came from regions experiencing COVID-19 cases in humans. However, so far, all the samples have tested negative for the novel virus .
Overall, based on the early data so far, no significant evidence exists to suggest that pets or other animals pose a substantial threat to people or other animals with respect to transmitting SARS-CoV-2.
Nevertheless, given the rising concern among the general public, major health organizations, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and key animal health organizations have all issued statements aiming to calm people’s fears about their pets being a source of the novel virus , , , ,  . “There is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare,” the World Organisation for Animal Health has emphasized.
Inevitably, the crucial focus right now during this current pandemic is to control human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2, and this requires each of us to play a key role to reduce community spread of the virus. However, the unfolding of this pandemic has again highlighted the complex interrelationships that exist between animals, people, and the environment. Ultimately, a multidisciplinary One Health approach will thus inevitably be critical to develop appropriate strategies to effectively prevent and control future outbreaks of COVID-19. And, given the speculation that wild live animal species may be linked to this pandemic, this collaborative approach will also require the expertise of wildlife forensic specialists. At best, trading at wet markets like the one in Wuhan often tends to occur under poor regulatory and welfare standards, and illegal wildlife trade frequently coexists at these locations. Indeed, many experts also hope that this crisis could represent the end of the global wildlife trade.
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Peter J. Halfmann et al. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Domestic Cats, New England Journal of Medicine (2020). DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2013400
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has more about cats and COVID-19.