‘COVID-19’ stands for ‘Coronavirus Disease 2019’, since it first emerged at the end of 2019 (in China). It is caused by a type of betacoronavirus now called SARS-CoV2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -Coronavirus type 2).
There are many types of coronaviruses that affect different animal species. Many of them are rather benign so are carried and transmitted by the hosts without causing much harm. Many common ‘colds’ we suffer from are coronaviruses. Normally, they are ‘species specific’ meaning that a cat coronavirus only infects cats and a human coronavirus only infects humans, for example.
Coronaviruses in general have a high mutation rate, so can change and evolve rapidly. SARS-CoV2 is a novel virus, which appears to have evolved from a type of bat coronavirus. How this happened is not yet fully understood. Two main theories are a) a benign form made the jump to humans first then evolved into the nasty (pathogenic) type it is now; or b) it evolved to being pathogenic in the primary host then made the jump to humans.
Direct bat to human transmission has not been documented, so it is likely an intermediate host was involved along the way, and two possibilities are pangolins (a type of anteater) or stray dogs. Among the first wave of human cases many were linked to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, then more and more humans were being infected that had no link to the market.
So, although in the early stages animal to human transmission has occurred, in its current state the main form of transmission is human to human.
Up to the point of writing (22 April 2020) there have been nearly 2,600,000 confirmed cases and nearly 180,000 recorded deaths. COVID-19 is spreading and killing so rapidly because it is a new virus, our immune systems have never been exposed to it before so we do not have any natural resistance to it.
Many people have great concern about this disease, not only for their own health and their loved ones, but for their pets as well. If it came from animals, surely they can be infected as well?
Below you will find a section of F.A.Q.s with a ‘bottom line’ answer if that is all you need, followed by ‘a bit more’ information including advice, and then some more ‘scientific stuff’ if that’s your thing.
Q1. Can my pets catch COVID-19?
A1. Bottom line: Currently, the evidence indicates that it is extremely unlikely that your pet would catch COVID-19, either from being outside (dogs exercising, cats free-roaming) or from you having COVID-19. You should continue to look after your pets as normal, observing good hygiene measures of washing your hands after handling them.
A bit more:
Because this virus is so new to the world we do not fully understand it, including whether it may still evolve into something which could be transmitted to animals and cause them to be ill. Therefore, we must exercise a certain amount of caution.
If you are ill with signs of COVID-19 (proven or presumed), in addition to the advice about self-isolation from people, it is recommended that:
you get someone else in your household to look after the pets, if possible
if this is not possible, you minimise direct contact with them, avoiding stroking, cuddling, grooming, kissing, being licked, and sharing food and bedding
when you do need to handle them, cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face covering, and wash your hands before and after handling them
Please note this advice is cautionary, it is not an indication that your pets are definitively at risk.
Q2. Can my pet die of COVID-19?
A2: Bottom line: There have been no reported non-human deaths from COVID-19.
A bit more:
Consider those numbers above again – 2.6 million cases, 180,000 deaths (to date 22 April 2020). In many of the countries that have seen the largest numbers of cases, eg China, UK, Italy, Spain, USA, there are high percentages of pet ownership, and yet there have been no deaths in pets attributed to COVID-19, and no surge in non-fatal illness in pets either.
Scientific Stuff – What you may have heard about – explained: • It was then reported that one of the dogs had died, potentially giving the impression it had died of COVID-19. That dog, a 17-year-old Pomeranian, had multiple co-morbidities, and died a few days after being released back to its owner, having not shown any signs of the illness. It had been held in quarantine for a couple of weeks, during which it had been repeatedly swabbed; one can presume this was a stressful experience for the dog. Neither of the dogs nor the Hong Kong cat had shown any clinical signs of COVID-19. All these ‘positive’ animals had been quarantined from COVID-19 positive households. In total 27 dogs and 15 cats (as of 31st March) were quarantined and tested; out of 42 animals only 3 had positive test results. • The Belgian cat belonged to a person infected with COVID-19 and developed respiratory and gastro-intestinal clinical signs. Its vomitus and faeces tested positive for SARSCoV2. However, due to the person self-isolating, the samples were taken by the owner, so could have been contaminated, and the cat was never checked by a vet or tested for other more common cat diseases which could have caused the signs it showed. It recovered after a few days. • Nadia the tiger, along with 3 other tigers and 3 lions, all developed a dry cough and some inappetance within the same week. Nadia was the only big cat tested – bearing in mind a full general anaesthetic is required to do this. Samples taken from the trachea (windpipe) tested positive and were triple checked. It is assumed she was infected from a zookeeper who must have been an asymptomatic carrier. There are other big cats at the zoo which were not affected, and no other animal species at the zoo were affected. All the cats recovered uneventfully from this brief illness. What does a positive test mean? What about Antibodies? Other evidence available:
• Two dogs tested positive in Hong Kong. Also, one cat in Hong Kong, one cat in Belgium and Nadia the tiger in New York Bronx Zoo have tested positive.
• In most of the cases some form of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test was performed.
• Swabs are taken from the site of the body assumed to be affected – so in these cases the mouth and nose (dogs), trachea (tiger) and since the Belgian cat had vomiting and diarrhoea, vomitus and faeces were sampled.
• There are different types of PCR test with differing levels of accuracy. In general, they are highly sensitive – they can detect the tiniest amount of genetic fragments of the virus. PCR tests do not confirm if the virus is viable within the animal sampled. (NB viruses aren’t really living entities, they are bunches of genetic material (DNA or RNA) with some extra proteins to help them do their job – they hijack the host cells’ mechanisms to manufacture more virus elements, which burst out of the cells ready to be passed on).
• PCR tests can be positive because:
a) the virus is present and viable in the host and able to replicate
b) the virus is present, but is not viable – it cannot infect the host cells or it cannot replicate
c) an infected person has contaminated the animal with their virus before sampling, or contaminated the sample after swabbing
d) rarely, it could be contaminated at the lab doing the test.
• It is note-worthy that the Hong Kong animals all had serial ‘weak positive’ PCR results, so in the face of them having no clinical signs, this could indicate either contamination or scenario ‘b’ above.
• Antibodies are manufactured by the immune system as a response to infection. They are made to target a particular infective agent, whether that is a bacterium, virus, protozoan or fungus.
• Not all infections trigger good antibody responses; the immune system deals with the infection in different ways (or not, if it is unable to).
• If a person or animal develops antibodies to SARSCoV2 it demonstrates that the virus has definitely infected the host, as the immune system has jumped into action and made antibodies.
• One of the two dogs in Hong Kong was shown to have developed antibodies, indicating its body mounted a response to the virus. However, that is still not a full indication that the infection in that one dog was significant, because the dog showed no clinical signs of illness. In this instance, there is no evidence the dog would act as a source of infection.
• Not all of the ‘positive’ animals have been tested for antibodies, so it is unclear how different animals react to the presence of the virus. Testing for antibodies requires taking a blood sample, so is more invasive than taking a swab.
• There have been many studies performed using experimental infection of different animal species – when this is done, very high doses of the virus are inoculated – this does not reflect the dosing received by natural infection.
• It has been found that the virus could not replicate in dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks.
• In bats, ferrets and cats, the virus can replicate.
• There is also evidence that cats can develop antibodies -but at a low rate, and evidence of cat to cat transmission – but under very forced, unnatural conditions.
• These studies have only been performed on small numbers of animals.
• In summary, although this information could be of concern – the take-home message should be these experiments in no way mimic the conditions of a natural infection.
• Other evidence indicates strongly that dogs and cats are not considered a source of transmission:
o 2 large laboratories in the USA have PCR tested thousands of samples from dogs and cats, submitted for other tests – all of which have been negative for SARSCoV2
o 21 pets belonging to 20 French vet students were tested (PCR and antibody tests). Two students had tested positive for COVID-19 and 11 others had symptoms of the illness. None of the pets was positive by PCR or showed an antibody response.
• Globally, research is ongoing in all different aspects of COVID-19, from studying the genome, to how it affects humans and animals, to potential treatments and vaccinations. Globally, we have only known SARSCoV2 for less than six months. Whilst an amazing amount of information has been obtained in that time, there is still a lot to learn.
• It was then reported that one of the dogs had died, potentially giving the impression it had died of COVID-19. That dog, a 17-year-old Pomeranian, had multiple co-morbidities, and died a few days after being released back to its owner, having not shown any signs of the illness. It had been held in quarantine for a couple of weeks, during which it had been repeatedly swabbed; one can presume this was a stressful experience for the dog. Neither of the dogs nor the Hong Kong cat had shown any clinical signs of COVID-19. All these ‘positive’ animals had been quarantined from COVID-19 positive households. In total 27 dogs and 15 cats (as of 31st March) were quarantined and tested; out of 42 animals only 3 had positive test results.
• The Belgian cat belonged to a person infected with COVID-19 and developed respiratory and gastro-intestinal clinical signs. Its vomitus and faeces tested positive for SARSCoV2. However, due to the person self-isolating, the samples were taken by the owner, so could have been contaminated, and the cat was never checked by a vet or tested for other more common cat diseases which could have caused the signs it showed. It recovered after a few days.
• Nadia the tiger, along with 3 other tigers and 3 lions, all developed a dry cough and some inappetance within the same week. Nadia was the only big cat tested – bearing in mind a full general anaesthetic is required to do this. Samples taken from the trachea (windpipe) tested positive and were triple checked. It is assumed she was infected from a zookeeper who must have been an asymptomatic carrier. There are other big cats at the zoo which were not affected, and no other animal species at the zoo were affected. All the cats recovered uneventfully from this brief illness.
What does a positive test mean?
What about Antibodies?
Other evidence available:
Q3: Does my cat need to be vaccinated during lockdown?
A3: Bottom Line: For an adult cat that has previously received a primary course (usually 2 vaccinations over 2-4 weeks) followed by a booster one year later, you do not need to get your cat vaccinated if their booster is due during lockdown.
(NB this advice is primarily aimed at UK cat owners; other countries may have specific legal requirements regarding Rabies vaccination – please refer to national and regional legislation accordingly)
A bit more:
There are some special situations where vaccination of cats or kittens would be recommended* even during lockdown:-
1. Completion of a kitten primary course if the first vaccination was given before lockdown^
2. Starting and completing a primary course for kittens or previously unvaccinated adult cats IF they MUST go into a cattery, rehoming centre, or any home where other cats live^
^Note that the normal interval of two to four weeks between the first and the second vaccinations can be extended to six weeks, if by doing so the second vaccination can be given when social distancing restrictions have been lifted.
3. For a cat that goes outside – the first annual booster after its primary course, allowing an extra grace period of 3 months from when it was due. For example, if your cat’s first annual booster was due at the end of January 2020 but was missed, ideally it should be done before the end of April 2020.
NB: For indoor-only cats the risk assessment is different – vaccination of indoor-only cats is currently not justifiable, since they are not at great risk of contracting the vaccinable diseases. Once restrictions have been lifted, consult your vet to discuss if they can have a single booster vaccination or if they need a ‘re-start’ course – the possibility that they may need to re-start later on is not enough of a reason to vaccinate them during lockdown.
4. If you are introducing new cats of any age into a house containing unvaccinated resident cat(s), or the resident cat(s)’ vaccinations have lapsed more than six months, the resident cat should receive at least one vaccination to boost its immunity against incoming viruses the newcomers may bring. If the resident cat’s last vaccination was over 3 years ago, a ‘re-start’ course of two vaccinations would be recommended.
5. Rabies vaccination of a cat belonging to a person who is re-patriating with their cat
*these are recommendations based on risk assessment of the cat in question, but during the COVID-19 pandemic the risk to human health is of paramount importance and must be factored into the decision made by the vet in charge of the case. Your own veterinary practice may have reasons not to vaccinate even in these situations, depending on staff resources, availability of PPE and vaccinations, and the health status of the owner.
This information is based on recommendations from various experts and specialists in the fields of immunology and infectious cat diseases, as well as advice from vaccination companies. For further information see:
The ‘grace periods’ mentioned above (e.g. six weeks between primary course vaccinations, and allowing three to six months after a due date for a booster vaccination) is exceptional advice during this pandemic, but is still classed as ‘off-label’ use of the vaccination. The normal datasheet advice should be followed once COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.
Q4: Can I catch COVID-19 from stroking my cat?
A4: Bottom line: It is unlikely, but not impossible. Observing normal hygiene measures are advised – wash your hands after touching your cat.
A bit more: Any surface that is touched by an infected person depositing virus on it is called a fomite. Therefore, there would be a very slim chance that if you cat goes outside and an infected person has stroked your cat, the virus could be transmitted to you on their fur. There is a much higher risk of you picking up the virus from, for example, supermarket trolley handles, door handles, parcels that are delivered etc.
• This is the underlying reason why everyone is advised to wash their hands regularly with soap and water for 20 seconds – the virus is easily removed and destroyed by doing this.
• SARSCoV2 is an ‘enveloped’ virus – meaning it has a sort of coat around it. Instead of providing protection however, having the coat makes it more vulnerable – the coat is destroyed easily with soap and disinfectants. Once the coat is gone the virus is no longer viable.
• Pet fur is a porous surface and the virus survives for a shorter time on porous surfaces. The amount of virus also decreases rapidly over time.
Q5: Should I be shutting my cat indoors now?
A5: Bottom line: NO!
A bit more: Because the risk of cats picking up and transmitting the disease is really low, there is no good reason to shut your cat inside if it is used to going out. Doing so is likely to cause your cat adverse distress, and could result in clinical stress-related illnesses, such as cystitis, overgrooming; or behavioural problems caused by the frustration, such as house soiling, cat-to-cat or cat-to-human aggression, and destructive tendencies.
Q6: Should I wash my cat to remove any virus?
A6: Bottom line: This is not advisable or necessary.
A bit more: Regular hand washing after touching your cat is all that is advised. Unless your cat is used to being washed, most cats are very averse to having a bath. Trying to do so is likely to cause them a lot of stress and cause you harm from being scratched or bitten. You should also not use disinfectant wipes on your cat – these can contain cleaning agents such as benzalkonium chloride which can be harmful to cats if ingested.
Q7: Is Vet2Cat open as usual during lockdown?
A7: Bottom line: – NO. We are unable to provide non-urgent veterinary care, all new cases need to be assessed remotely first. If, after that, the vet deems it is necessary to see the cat, a visit can be arranged, but social distancing must be observed.
ALL citizens should be following the government’s advice on social distancing as much as possible; this includes veterinary staff.
A bit more:
• Our current veterinary guidance (to date 22 April 2020) is to consider physical examination of a pet if, after remote triage, there is an obvious immediate concern that cannot be dealt with remotely, or the vet feels that the health or welfare of the pet (or public health) could be compromised within a two-month timescale.
• Non-urgent work includes routine vaccinations, weight clinics, post-operative checks, claw clipping, grooming, 6-month health checks, routine neutering, and behavioural visits, are all important and greatly useful for the health and wellbeing of your pet, and when COVID-19 is a horror we see in the rear-view mirror, all pet owners are encouraged to actively partake of these valuable routine but non-urgent services.
• A new case remote consultation is charged at £25, Please see https://vet2cat.co.uk/services-offered/covid-19-lockdown-lift-off/ for details of registering and booking, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If a call-out is then required the £25 will be taken off your first consutlation fee.
• Vets have temporarily been given permission to provide prescription-only medication when necessary, after remote consultation without physical examination, during the COVID-19 restrictions. It is likely this power will be removed when restrictions are lifted.
• Problems deemed to be relatively minor after a phone/video consultation can often be handled without the need for face to face contact. For example:
advising dietary changes
recommending non-prescription products e.g. probiotic supplements for gastroenteritis
describing procedures the owner can do themselves – e.g. bathing a small wound
when necessary prescribing prescription-only medicines which can be either collected or delivered
making a plan to monitor and arrange a follow-up phone/video consultation
• For house visits- you must shut the cat in one room for the vet to go into, and retreat into a different room. The vet may need to communicate with you by phone to gather more information, and to explain their findings and plan of action to you. Written consent for procedures is unlikely to be possible, so you may have to give verbal consent witnessed by another member of staff.
No scientific stuff here: These measures are a combination of what is required of us by the government (social distancing, only travelling when absolutely necessary) and our duties as veterinary surgeons. For further information please see:
Q8: Should I stockpile my cat’s food?
A8: Bottom line- NO. Pet food should be bought responsibly as should human food.
A bit more:
The longer-term fate of how food in general is supplied around the world is in the hands of governments and traders. The problem comes when people do stockpile. It has a domino effect – the more people seen to be stockpiling, the more other people do it, then there is a mismatch between supply and demand. Be responsible and buy only what you need for a few weeks at a time.
It would be wise to ensure you have enough cat food in to feed your cat(s) for at least 7 days if you live alone, or 14 days if you live with other people; this applies in particular if your cat is on a special prescription diet which, in the current circumstances, might take longer to arrive when ordered. This is just in case you or someone in your home starts to show COVID-19 symptoms. If you live alone you must self-isolate for 7 days. If you live with another person who becomes unwell, you must self-isolate for 14 days.
See https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/self-isolation-advice/ for advice on self-isolation.
The photos of cats in this post are all of some of my wonderful patients, I adore all of them! Permission to use has been previously granted by their staff. Thanks to you all. Claire xx