NEWS
30/03/2020 8:13 AM IST | Updated 30/03/2020 8:14 AM IST

A Cat In Belgium Tested Positive For Coronavirus, But You Shouldn't Panic

This may be the first known case of a cat getting sick from the novel coronavirus, though experts stress cases of pets catching it remain extremely rare.

Health officials in Belgium have reported a case in which a pet cat appeared to have contracted coronavirus from her owner, though they emphasised human-to-pet transmission seems to be extremely rare.

“Recently, the veterinary medicine faculty in Liège reported that a coronavirus infection has been determined in a cat,” virologist Steven Van Gucht said at a press conference in Belgium on Friday, The Brussels Times reported. “The cat lived with her owner, who started showing symptoms of the virus a week before the cat did.”

The cat had diarrhoea and breathing trouble, and researchers subsequently found the novel coronavirus in her feaces. As of Saturday, both cat and owner were reportedly doing well.

“We want to stress that this is an isolated case,” Van Gucht said. “Additionally, in this case, we are talking about a human-to-animal transmission, not the other way around. There are no indications that this is common. The risk of animal-to-human transmission is very small.”

Nils Jacobi via Getty Images
A cat in Belgium (not pictured) may be the first known case of a feline contracting COVID-19.

Those sentiments were echoed by Jane Sykes, chief veterinary medical officer at the University of California. Cats and dogs, she said, may be “dead-end” hosts for the virus, meaning they could become infected but don’t shed enough of the virus to transmit it to humans or other animals.

So far, there are no known cases of pets transmitting the virus to people, but there’s not enough data to tell for sure if that’s possible. But generally, “you’re more likely to get infected from another person,” Sykes told HuffPost.

Previously, two dogs in Hong Kong tested positive for the virus and were asymptomatic. At least one of those dogs tested “weakly positive,” leading some experts to believe the dog could be merely carrying traces of the virus in its nose or fur, rather than being truly infected. But Sykes said the levels of virus found in the cat, plus the cat’s symptoms, suggest true infection, but noted that further tests ― like checking to see whether the cat has developed antibodies for the virus ― are needed.

“It’s not really very surprising to hear of an infected cat,” she said, explaining that cats and ferrets were able to contract the similar virus that caused the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. But there was no evidence of cats transmitting that virus to humans. (She also noted that ferrets became much sicker from the virus than cats did.)

That said, the case of the Belgian cat means pet owners and veterinarians should be on the lookout for any possible symptoms consistent with Covid-19 in cats, dogs and other mammals (especially ferrets), Sykes said. And pet owners who have the illness should take precautions to minimise any risks.

Current UK government guidelines state “there is no evidence that companion animals/pets such as dogs and cats can be infected with coronavirus,” and there is no official advice to distance from pets. 

In advice on its website the PDSA states that “in most cases your pet can stay with you [if you’re self-isolating], however, it’s advised to avoid close contact, such as sharing a bed.”

Meanwhile in the US, both the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association recommend having another person in your household care for your pets if you are sick with Covid-19, if possible. If that’s not possible, wash your hands before and after interacting with pets; regularly wash their bowls, bedding and toys; and wear a face mask if you can.

If a pet has come into contact with an infected person and you’re worried about exposure from the virus surviving on the animal’s fur, some experts suggest bathing pets with species-appropriate shampoo or wiping them down with soapy cloth and water.

Sykes also stressed the importance of the “human-animal bond” and noted that no one should abandon or euthanise their pets out of fears over COVID-19. And she continues to see it as a good thing that so many people are spending their extra time at home with animal companions.

“That would still be strongly encouraged,” she said.