Animals and coronaviruses: cats and ferrets get sick (but the risk comes from people)

There is no evidence that pets are carriers of the Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus, but they could contract the virus from the owner

(image: Getty Images)

After some (few) reports of cats and dogs positive to the new coronavirus , a small Chinese study confirms: i cats are susceptible to Sars-Cov-2 , as well as the ferrets . No evidence, however, for other pets such as pigs, chickens and ducks. But the most important fact – underlined by the World Health Organization (WHO), by the Higher Institute of Health (ISS) and by associations of veterinary doctors such as ANVI – is that at the moment our pets do not pose a danger to humans . In other words, a sick owner is more likely to infect them than the opposite.

I study

The alarm went off in Europe when, after the cases in Hong Kong (two dogs and a cat), a cat who lived together with his sick owner of Covid – 19 began to show some symptoms . It seems that the cat has been tested positive to the coronavirus Sars-Cov-2 based on the tests made by the university of Liège (although the case has not been officially notified to the Oie World Organization for animal health). And for some days now it has been known that some big cats inside the zoos in the United States have been victims of the new coronavirus.

Is it any wonder? Not even much, experts say. After all, the cats were found to be susceptible to the Sars virus in the early 2000s.

To understand a little more, the team of Zhigai Bu of the Chinese Harbin Veterinary Research Institute conducted a small study (available i preprint on the platform bioRxive but not yet subjected to peer review ) on cats, ferrets, dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks to check their susceptibility to the new coronavirus and how much they could possibly transmit the infection to their fellow humans.

In this selection of pets, the researchers found evidence of the presence of the virus in various tissues in cats and ferrets , while dogs seem to be unlikely given that the viral genome was found only in the anal swabs of two out of five dogs. In particular, scientists have exposed specially to high quantities by Sars-Cov-2 five felines, then ascertaining the presence of viral rna in the cells of the tissues of the upper respiratory tract (but not in the lungs). Three of these cats were then placed near cages of other cats not previously exposed previously to the virus. Only one of these in the end tested positive, suggesting that even among felines the virus can spread through droplets of saliva , although not so easily.

According to the authors of the article, however, no cat has shown particular symptoms of the infection, and – points out virologist Linda Saif of Ohio State University in an interview with Nature – in the document the way of housing the animals is not well described nor how they could be in contact with each other.

Furthermore, given that according to the Chinese researchers themselves the laboratory conditions do not reflect that of family life , other tests will be needed in which cats are given different doses of the virus to draw more likely conclusions about their susceptibility and ability to transmit the infection.

No to panic, yes to hygiene

The data, in short, are still few and preliminary, and above all there is no evidence that the animals transmit the disease to the human being. Indeed, authorities and experts say, infected owners are more likely to pass the virus on to their pets, perhaps by kissing them or sharing food. The greatest risk for us humans remains the contagion from other people .

As a precaution, to protect the health of our furry friends and ours (also because coronavirus is not the only pathogen in this world and it is good to remember it), experts advise to those who share the house with the animals to pay even more attention to hygiene : wash your hands before and after handling or caressing them, and after cleaning their manure; maybe avoid getting licked and sharing our food with them. If you fall ill with Covid – 19 , then, better take precautions and keep your distance from our pet as far as possible, just as you would a human family member , without leaving him from home .

The opinion of the veterinarians

“We know little about this virus and rightly studies are focusing mainly on the human being. The interhuman transmission is therefore better known, while the interspecific transmission is still to be explored. As for cats and other pets we must therefore always refer to what is reported in the national and international authorities , therefore WHO, ISS and OIE “, commented Marco Melosi , president of the National Association of Italian Veterinary Doctors (Anmvi). “We must first consider that the reported cases of domestic cats coronavirus positive are only three , who either did not get sick or showed symptoms very mild, and above all they did not transmit the virus. This is what we know and which is recognized by the scientific community: cats can run the risk of becoming infected by their owners but they do not get sick and do not infect the people around them “. The cats of the Chinese study, however, have been placed in very different conditions, which can hardly occur in everyday life. “To become infected the cat – but also applies to the dog – needs to be exposed to a certain viral load that walking in the street hardly meets .

Imprisonment in cats is not currently foreseen and recommended by any institution. “Owners who are not infected can let their cats go outside without worries , because, I repeat, as far as we know it is practically impossible that they can contract the new coronavirus on the street, from other cats, let alone that they can transmit the virus to the human being . If anything, an always valid concept of cleanliness and hygiene .

“People who unfortunately fall ill with Covid – 19 instead, they must comply with the provisions of the WHO and the ISS, that is, behave with the animal in the same way as with the other human family members , to avoid the possibility, even if remote, of contagion “.

“I want to reiterate” , concludes Melosi, “which, even if the infection were to occur, for current knowledge it does not represent no problem for the human being “.

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