COVID-19 in Cats? What does it all mean?

April 06, 2020

Joe Lyman, DVM, MS

A preprint research study has indicated that cats and ferrets may become infected with SARS-nCoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks did not appear to allow for replication of the virus, however.

This finding is consistent with prior research related to SARS-nCoV-1, which was the coronavirus that caused the outbreak of SARS in 2003. Cats and ferrets were both able to be infected with that virus, although the implications of that for transmission of disease to humans remains unclear.

This report is different than previous news articles showing incidents of detection of the virus in dogs or cats, however, in that this study showed the capacity for transmission between cats. In the initial trial only one out of three cats housed next to the infected cats became infected themselves. This doesn’t show extremely efficient spread between cats, although such a small sample makes it impossible to draw conclusions.

In addition, none of these cats showed any clinical signs. This is in contrast to the news report from Belgium indicating that a cat there was symptomatic with respiratory difficulty and diarrhea. It is assumed that cat caught the virus from its owner, who was also positive for COVID-19.

What we can conclude is that it is possible for cats to become infected with the virus and produce new copies of it. Questions remain about whether they can transmit the virus to humans in sufficient amounts to cause disease. Veterinarians are advised to be aware of the potential for infection of cats from owners infected with the disease, as well as the risk of examination and medical care of those animals

We also don’t know if stray cats could be a reservoir of disease and contribute to the persistence of the disease in urban areas. In the previous SARS outbreak, stray cats were tested and shown to be positive. The existence of the virus in cats, however, did not appear to contribute to the spread of disease in humans and the outbreak was contained.

As if to demonstrate how easily cats are infected with the novel coronavirus, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo is now reported to have tested positive. Multiple tigers and lions at the zoo started exhibiting a dry cough, prompting zoo veterinarians to test one tiger for COVID-19. The positive in this animal likely means the others are all positive with the coronavirus as well. The fact that even big cats that, we assume, haven’t had significant close contact with humans shows just how easily this virus can be transmitted. As if you needed a good reason to stay more than six feet away from a tiger, now you can add social distancing to the list.

Pet owners don’t need to fear catching COVID-19 from their cats based on this news. Owners who are showing clinical signs or have risk of exposure should limit contact with cats while awaiting testing results. It appears that cats are more at risk of catching it from people than the other way around. The largest risk of contracting COVID-19 remains other people, and our best measures to prevent disease remain social distancing and frequent hand washing.

Jianzhong Shi, etal. "Susceptibility of ferrets, cats, dogs, and different domestic animals to SARS-coronavirus-2 preprint", bioRxiv. March 2020.

Martina BE, et al., "SARS virus infection of cats and ferrets.", Nature. October 2003.

Helen Thompson. "A cat appears to have caught the coronavirus, but it’s complicated", Science News. March 2020.

Tara Law. "A Tiger at the Bronx Zoo Has Tested Positive for Coronavirus", Time Magazine. April 2020.


Category: Animal Safety, Companion Animal, Public Health, Veterinary, Animal Health, Sanitation & Hygiene