Like almost everyone else lately, I’ve been preoccupied with coronavirus pandemic news. Mostly, I’ve been worried about how to keep my elderly parents and other people I know with pre-existing conditions safe. So when I heard a tiger at the Bronx Zoo had tested positive for COVID-19 on April 5th, I thought that was odd. Less than three weeks later, a total of eight big cats at the zoo—three lions and five tigers—were confirmed to be infected. That really got my attention. But when the CDC and the USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories announced two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in pet cats—the first pet cases in the US—I legit started to worry.
Exactly what did this mean for my three precious kitties? How bad could this get? And what, if anything, could I do to protect them? I knew I needed to find out everything I could about the potential impact COVID-19 could have on our furry friends.
What are coronaviruses?
Coronaviruses are a very common group of viruses that cause illnesses like the common cold, MERS, and SARS. Typical coronavirus symptoms are fever, runny nose, cough, and sore throat, but some strains can cause more serious symptoms than others. And some strains of coronaviruses mainly affect animals like dogs, cats, horses, and ferrets.1
It’s currently thought that SARS-Cov-2 (aka the novel coronavirus), which is the virus that causes COVID-19, started out in bats and then transferred to humans at a Chinese “wet market” that sold fish, meat, and live animals.2
How did the cats contract the virus in the first place?
The Bronx Zoo released a statement on April 5th saying the big cats in their care got it from “a person caring for them who was asymptomatically infected with the virus or before that person developed symptoms.”3a
As far as the two pet cats in New York, the owner of one was confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19. Another cat living in the same house tested negative for the virus. The second cat with a positive test result was an indoor-outdoor cat whose owner didn’t have any symptoms and had never been tested for the virus. But a lot of people in the neighborhood where the cat roamed tested positive, so officials think if the cat’s owner wasn’t asymptomatic, then it most likely got infected from a neighbor.4
The owner of a cat in Minnesota that tested positive for coronavirus in early June had tested positive one week before.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19 in cats?
Call your veterinarian if your cat shows any of the following symptoms, especially if they seem to be getting worse over time:5a
- Coughing (especially a dry cough)
- Shortness of breath/difficulty breathing
- Runny nose
- Discharge from eyes
Is the testing process the same for cats as it is for humans?
Testing cats for COVID-19 is very similar to testing humans. Your cat’s nose and the back of her throat will be swabbed and the samples analyzed in a lab. Nadia, the tiger diagnosed at the Bronx Zoo, was put under general anesthesia so additional samples could be taken from fluid in her lungs. And the other big cats at the zoo were tested using fecal samples.3b
Coronavirus tests run on animals are processed through veterinary offices or hospitals, so they don’t take away any time or resources needed to process human tests.
If you and your vet decide your kitty should be tested for the coronavirus, odds are she won’t have to be anesthetized just for a quick swab. And according to the CDC, testing isn’t recommended for every cat—only if they have symptoms and have been in contact with someone who’s tested positive.
What should I do if my cat tests positive for COVID-19?
First of all, don’t panic. Based on everything we know so far, cats appear to develop mostly mild symptoms if infected, and can be taken care of at home. The CDC is a great resource for all things coronavirus-related, and they’ve got lots of useful information on their website to help you and your furry friend through this stressful time. Here are their recommendations for caring for a cat with COVID-19:5b
Keep your cat at home unless they need medical care. No visits to the groomers, kitty daycare, parks, etc.
Don’t let your cat go outside.
Do not put a cloth mask over your cat’s face.
Keep your cat isolated from everyone else in your house, including people and other pets. Only come in contact with your cat when necessary, like feeding time or to scoop the litter box.
Make sure your cat’s bedding, bowls, toys, etc, are kept separate from other animals in your house and disinfect them regularly.
Wash any fabric items like blankets and towels your cat comes in contact with on a regular basis.
Even though it’s hard, resist the urge to pet or snuggle with your cat, and don’t allow them to lick you.
If you’re sick with COVID-19, do not take your cat to the vet yourself. Call your vet first, because they might be able to evaluate your pet’s condition over the phone.
Keep your cat isolated until either 14 days have passed since symptoms first started, or 72 hours after symptoms resolve without the help of medication.
You’re a great pet parent, so it’s hard to accept that you can’t comfort your cat when she feels bad. But because there’s still so many unknowns, these guidelines are the best methods we currently have to prevent the virus from spreading. Hang in there; you (and your furbaby) can do this.
How can I prevent my cat from catching coronavirus?
Mostly by doing the same things you’re already doing to slow the spread of the virus between people:
Don’t share dishes, glasses, or eating utensils with other people or animals.
Wipe down surfaces with disinfectant regularly.
Maintain social distancing of six feet or more between you and other people.
Wash your hands often and don’t touch your face.
If you’re sick with COVID-19 or you’re experiencing symptoms, isolate yourself from your cat and other people. If possible, get someone else to take care of him while you’re sick. If that’s not possible, be sure to wear a mask and gloves whenever you have to do things like feed him or scoop the litter box.
Can cats transmit the virus to other cats?
According to a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and The University of Tokyo, the answer—at least for the time being—appears to be “yes”. Cats were found to shed the virus from their nasal passages for up to six days, and they shed a lot: between 30,000 and 50,000 virus particles were found on each swab collected.6 This shows how important it is to isolate cats with symptoms from healthy cats.
Can my cat spread coronavirus to me?
The CDC says on their website that the odds of animals spreading the virus to people are low. The virus is spread mainly by person-to-person contact. The CDC has also stated there’s no evidence that viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, can spread to people from the skin, fur, or hair of pets.7
Wired Magazine spoke to Sam Sander, a wildlife veterinarian at The University of Illinois, who had this to say on the subject: “There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever—worldwide, period, at all—that shows that cats can give the infection to people.”2b
How worried should I be?
Based on my research, not much. None of the infected cats have died, and all of them had mild cases that could be treated at home. There’s no need to panic, and definitely no need to give up your beloved kitty if she gets sick.
Something else Dr. Sander said in her interview may help ease your mind and provide some perspective: “If you think about the number of people who have cats in the world, and the number of people who have been infected with Covid-19 in the world, to only have a handful of cats that have shown signs of potential infection shows us that this virus doesn't very efficiently transfer into those species.”2c
Now more than ever, we need our furry friends, and they need us. At Meowtel, we know how much you love your kitties, and we’re committed to helping you give them nothing but the best of care.