Cats and Coronavirus: What You Need to Know

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

can cats get coronavirus from humans

Story at-a-glance -

  • Seven wild cats at the Bronx Zoo may have been infected with the novel coronavirus through human-to-cat transmission
  • One tiger was tested and did indeed have the virus — none of the cats became very sick, and all are expected to make a full recovery
  • Despite infections in both domestic and wild cats, at this time, experts agree that cats are a highly improbable source of the virus in humans
  • A preliminary study from China indicates that cats and ferrets are highly susceptible to infection, dogs have low susceptibility, and pigs, ducks and chickens do not appear to be susceptible
  • Commonsense precautions for pet owners include limiting contact with animals if you’re infected with COVID-19, including your pets in social distancing behaviors, and maintaining good hand hygiene before and after handling pets

I'm sure all you cat lovers out there are aware that the novel coronavirus, aka SARS-CoV-2, seems to have infected both a pet cat and at least one big cat at New York City's Bronx Zoo.

Nadia, a Malayan Tiger at the Bronx Zoo, Tests Positive

From the Associated Press:

"At the Bronx Zoo, [4-year-old Malayan tiger] Nadia, her sister Azul, two Amur tigers and three African lions developed dry coughs, and some of the cats exhibited some wheezing and loss of appetite, said Dr. Paul Calle, the zoo's chief veterinarian.

The staff figured there could be a relatively routine explanation for the cats' symptoms but tested Nadia for coronavirus out of 'due diligence and an abundance of caution,' Bronx zoo director Jim Breheny said. Only Nadia was tested because it takes anesthesia to get a sample from a big cat, and she had already been knocked out to be examined.

The seven sickened cats live in two areas at the zoo, and the animals had contact with the same worker, who is doing OK, zoo officials said. They said there are no signs of illness in other big cats on the property.

Staffers who work with the cats will now wear infection-protection garb, as primate keepers have done for years because of the animals' closer genetic ties to human beings, Breheny said."1

The zoo was closed to the public on March 16; the first signs of illness in the tigers and lions weren't seen until March 27. Nadia's test samples were sent to both the Cornell and University of Illinois veterinary colleges, and then to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory, for confirmation.

The results came back positive.2 The zoo's chief veterinarian, Dr. Paul Calle, told the New York Times that none of the cats ever acted terribly sick. All are expected to fully recover.

For the record (and in case anyone is wondering why Nadia got tested but tests for possibly infected people remain in short supply in some locations), the coronavirus tests used for the tiger and all animals are different from the tests used to detect the virus in humans.

Cats Are a Highly Unlikely Source of the Virus in Humans

According to Scott Weese, a veterinary internal medicine specialist and the chief of infection control at the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College, it's not surprising that since domestic cats are apparently susceptible to the virus, wild cats are as well. However, he makes two important observations:3

  • "Zoo cats generally don't have much direct contact with their caretaker (though this varies by zoo). Infection of these cats was therefore presumably through very transient direct, or indirect, contact.
  • Given the very limited testing of domestic cats to date, this yet again raises the question of how commonly domestic cats have been infected by owners in North America, given the large number of infected people and relatively high percentage of households with cats, and the much closer contact between people and pet cats (compared to zoo cats)."

Weese advises people not to overreact, since COVID-19 is still a predominantly human disease. However, since we can't completely rule out animal involvement, no matter how minor, he feels it's prudent to follow a few simple, commonsense measures to reduce the already low risk of disease transmission to and from animals:

  • "If you're infected, limit contact with animals.
  • If someone in your house is infected, keep your animals away from other animals and people.
  • Social distancing includes your pets. Keep your pets away from other people and animals outside your household, just like you should be doing with yourself."

In an interview with the New York Times, Karen Terio, chief of the Zoological Pathology Program at the University of Illinois veterinary college (one of the labs that tested Nadia's samples), suggests widespread infection in pet cats is unlikely:

"Given the number of people in this country that have been infected with the virus and have become ill, and the number of people in this country that own domestic cats," she said, "it seems fairly improbable that cats are an important source of the virus for people if the first case we're diagnosing it in is a tiger."4

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Study Looks at Coronavirus in 5 Additional Animal Species

Researchers at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute (HVRI) of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences conducted a study of several domestic animal species to investigate susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection, and also transmission between members of these species. The not-yet-peer-reviewed study was published at the end of March.5

The research team examined the behavior of the virus in ferrets, cats, dogs, pigs, ducks and chickens. Two strains of SARS-CoV-2 were used in the ferret experiments. The first was isolated from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan (the now-infamous "wet market"), and the other was isolated from a human patient in China.

The sample from the human was used with all the other animals. The following are the researchers' conclusions as outlined in veterinary journal dvm360:6

  • Ferrets and cats appear highly susceptible to infection with the novel coronavirus; there is minimal discussion of the data presented for juvenile cats, making it difficult to draw conclusions, although the researchers comment that they believe the virus replicates better in younger cats
  • SARS-CoV-2 can replicate in the upper respiratory tract of ferrets for up to 8 days
  • Respiratory droplet transmission of the virus between cats is possible
  • Dogs appear to have low susceptibility to the virus, and intraspecies transmission is not likely
  • Pigs, ducks and chickens do not appear to be susceptible to the virus

It's important to note that sample sizes for this study were small, there were no control groups, the animals were housed under "experimental conditions" (they were lab animals), and they were inoculated with large amounts of the coronavirus, which does not replicate what happens in the real world.

Additionally, the researchers offered minimal information on observed symptoms in the infected animals, so it's impossible to determine how the disease progressed or its severity.

Guidance From CDC, Veterinary Associations

We still have many more questions than answers about the behavior of the novel coronavirus in both people and animals. We do know it can spread between humans, but we don't know yet if it can be transmitted between members of the same animal species, or if infected animals can transmit the virus to people.

As of this writing, the CDC recommends that if you're infected or suspect you might be, you should limit contact with pets for the time being — especially if you have cats or ferrets in your home.7

The position of the British Veterinary Association (BVA) is that cat parents who are self-isolating or have symptoms of COVID-19 should keep their pets indoors where possible. They also caution that the virus can linger on a cat's fur and be transmitted through touch in the same way it can be picked up from other contaminated surfaces.

They advise pet owners to practice good hand hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus but noted there is no evidence it can be passed from animals to humans.8

The Australian Veterinary Association also advised cat owners to keep pets inside if they've been exposed to a human case of COVID-19. Other steps they advise include minimizing contact with pets who may have been exposed and maintaining good hand hygiene before and after handling a cat or its food and water bowls.9

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), there's little to no evidence that cats become ill if infected with the new coronavirus, nor is there evidence that naturally infected cats spread it to other pets or people. "Out of an abundance of caution and until more is known about this virus, if you are ill with COVID-19 you should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as you would restrict your contact with other people," the AVMA advises.10