What do we know about cats and the new coronavirus?

7th Apr 2020

“Tiger at Bronx Zoo tests positive for Covid-19”

BBC News, 6 April 2020

According to a story published by several news outlets, a tiger has tested positive for Covid-19 (the infection caused by the new coronavirus). This is confirmed by a statement from Bronx Zoo in New York, USA, where the tiger is kept.

In a press release published on 5 April 2020, Bronx Zoo said that a 4-year old tiger had tested positive for Covid-19 after showing symptoms of a respiratory illness. The positive result was confirmed in a statement by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories, who conducted the test.

Four tigers and three African lions at Bronx zoo developed a dry cough and are thought to have Covid-19, in total, according to Bronx Zoo. All seven animals are reportedly “doing well under veterinary care” and are “all expected to recover”.

It is believed that the virus was transmitted to the big cats from a zoo employee who was caring for the animals. Bronx Zoo has been closed since 16 March 2020.

Notably, the USDA writes that “at this time, there is no evidence to suggest that any animals, including pets or livestock, can spread COVID-19 infection to people”.

This isn’t the only news story about cats and Covid-19

What is thought to be the first case of human-to-cat transmission of the new coronavirus was reported in Belgium at the end of March 2020. The cat developed breathing problems and diarrhoea a week after testing positive, but has now recovered according to Science News.

As was the case when a dog in Hong Kong tested positive for Covid-19, questions have been raised about whether the cat had the virus or the positive test result was due to contamination. 

Without clinical details being released, writes Dr Sarah Caddy, Clinical Research Fellow in Viral Immunology and Veterinary Surgeon at the University of Cambridge, it cannot be said that Covid-19 caused the cat’s breathing problems and diarrhoea. There is a myriad of other illnesses that can cause these symptoms in cats, she adds. 

A study by researchers in China, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, looked at the susceptibility of different animals to the new coronavirus. This found that the virus “replicates poorly in dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks, but efficiently in ferrets and cats”, providing some evidence that cats may pass it on to each other.

However, as stressed by experts in infectious disease, this does not mean that cats can spread the disease to humans.

There is still no evidence that cats or dogs can transmit the new coronavirus to humans

This evidence about animal-to-human transmission has not changed since we previously wrote about this topic. The World Health Organisation writes, “while there has been one instance of a dog being infected in Hong Kong, to date, there is no evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit COVID-19.”

In addition, reports of Covid-19 in animals are still extremely rare. According to a press release by IDEXX Laboratories, a pet healthcare company that provides diagnostic tests, they have had no positive Covid-19 results from “thousands of canine and feline specimens tested”.

The British Veterinary Association has stated that “there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare.” UK government advice for people with pets and livestock during the coronavirus pandemic is available here.