Yes, cats can get COVID-19, but they're unlikely to become seriously ill
- Cats who contract COVID-19 may cough or sneeze, run a fever, and have nasal or eye discharge.
- If you have the virus, wearing a mask and gloves can help you avoid transmitting it to your cat.
- Cats usually recover in a few days with supportive care, and they won’t transmit the virus to you.
As COVID-19 cases continue to increase across the United States, you might worry about transmitting COVID-19 not just to loved ones, but also to your beloved pets. You may have heard about lions and tigers in the Bronx zoo contracting COVID-19 from people and wonder if your own, tinier cat is at risk.
Cats generally don't develop severe illness from the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus, or COVID-19. However, they do appear to be more susceptible to catching it than other pets.
Read on to learn how to tell if your cat has COVID-19 and what to do if your furry friend becomes ill.
Signs and symptoms of COVID-19 in cats
Most COVID-19 cases in cats are mild or asymptomatic. Much like humans, cats often develop symptoms in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), potential signs of COVID-19 in cats include:
- Coughing or sneezing
- Trouble breathing
- Fever (over 102.5 F)
- Lack of energy
- Runny nose
- Discharge from the eyes
- Diarrhea or vomiting
Experimental research on cats infected with COVID-19 found that symptoms peaked four days after infection.
How do cats contract COVID-19?
Cats catch COVID-19 the same way humans do: By getting virus particles in their mouth or nose.
"Transmission in felines, as with people, is primarily airborne, although contaminated food and water bowls, etc. can also be a source," says Carol Osborne, DVM, integrative veterinarian at Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic.
Cats can contract the disease from other cats, but most often they get it from humans. Cat owners love to express physical affection to their pets, but this close contact can make it easy for viral particles to pass from one host to another.
"This is especially an issue if you kiss, hug, or let your cat lick you," says Chyrle Bonk, DVM, veterinarian at Hepper.
Can cats transmit COVID-19?
Cats can spread the disease to other household felines. That said, in experiments of cat-to-cat transmission, infected cats usually developed asymptomatic infections. In a multi-cat household, you can slow transmission by isolating the infected cat.
No evidence suggests cats can transmit COVID-19 to dogs. However, cats may be able to transmit the disease to other species of pets, such as hamsters or ferrets. Research suggests feral cats played a role in the spread of COVID-19 between two separate mink farms, suggesting interspecies transmission is possible.
Currently there are no records of humans contracting the virus from cats. It's very unlikely cats could easily transmit the virus to humans, for two reasons:
- A brief shedding period: When cats contract the virus, they only shed particles for a short time (around 5 days or less).
- Reinfection rate: Most infected cats develop a robust antibody response, which protects them from getting infected a second time.
These factors mean that there is a very short, temporary time in which a cat is infectious. Unless a cat lives in an unusually crowded setting, widespread transmission is unlikely.
Can feline coronavirus cause COVID-19?
SARS-CoV-2 is one of many coronaviruses that can infect mammals. It's not the same as feline coronavirus, a common virus in cats that typically causes mild diarrhea.
"COVID-19 is caused by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. This new virus is a betacoronavirus and is completely unrelated to feline coronavirus, which is an alphacoronavirus," says Jonathan Roberts, veterinarian and consultant for Excited Cats. In other words, the virus that causes COVID-19 is genetically quite different from feline coronavirus.
An infection of feline coronavirus cannot cause COVID-19. If it spreads within a population of cats, however, there is a chance it could mutate and cause a rare disease called feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).
Important: A cat with FIP may display symptoms that resemble COVID-19, like shortness of breath or fever. But unlike COVID-19, FIP is almost always fatal for cats without treatment. If your pet is ill, you'll need to take them to a veterinarian right away.
What about other pets?
In February 2021, global tallies showed 115 domestic cats had contracted COVID-19, compared to 81 dogs and one pet ferret. Since pets aren't widely tested, this tally is likely an undercount. But the low numbers imply that pets rarely contract COVID-19 from their owners.
A 2020 study suggests cats are more susceptible to developing COVID-19 than dogs. Researchers examined 603 dogs and 316 cats from around Italy. They found 3.3% of dogs and 5.8% of cats had measurable antibody levels. Cats developed a higher level of antibodies than dogs, which means their immune systems may react more strongly to the virus. That said, they're still far less likely to become sick than humans.
What to do if you think your cat could have COVID-19
If your cat shows signs of COVID-19, contact your veterinarian for guidance. Many veterinary clinics offer telemedicine consultations when necessary. Video examinations can be especially helpful if you yourself are quarantining.
A veterinarian can usually screen your cat's symptoms without needing a COVID-19 test for confirmation. Dogs and cats typically aren't tested for COVID-19 unless there is a risk of widespread animal infection, such as an outbreak at an animal shelter. If a test is necessary, your veterinarian will contact state officials for further steps.
Important: The antibody tests used for animals are different from those used on humans. You cannot use a human COVID-19 test to gauge your pet's
When caring for a sick cat, the CDC recommends you:
- DO isolate your cat to one room of the house (much like you'd do when caring for a sick human).
- DO keep a log of their symptoms and tell your veterinarian about changes in their condition.
- DO NOT let your sick cat outside, even if it is normally an outside cat.
- DO NOT put a mask on your cat. Doing so could cause breathing difficulties.
- DO NOT try to clean your cat's fur with hydrogen peroxide, hand sanitizer, or other chemical cleaning agents. Your veterinarian can offer more guidance on bathing your cat, if needed.
Your pet can likely resume their normal routine after they've gone at least three days without symptoms.
To date, few cats have died from COVID-19. Most cats can return to good health "with proper supportive care, fluids, and good nutrition," says Osborne.
Protecting your cat if you have COVID-19
If you have COVID-19, one of the most effective ways to avoid infecting your cat is to keep your distance, as difficult as that may feel.
"If possible, have someone else take care of your cat until you are free from symptoms," says Bonk. Doing so will allow you to rest and your cat to get quality care.
If you cannot arrange pet care, you still have options for lowering the risk of transmission. "To protect your feline, be sure to practice good hygiene," says Osborne, who recommends the following:
- Wearing a mask when around your cat
- Washing your hands thoroughly before and after touching your cat
- Securing trash bins so your cat can't reach used tissues or food containers
- Sanitizing your cat's bowls, bedding, and toys.
- Wearing gloves and mask when cleaning out litter boxes
These simple precautions can go a long way toward helping keep your cat from contracting COVID-19.
There's no evidence to suggest you can contract COVID-19 from your cat — but your pet can contract the virus from you.
If you're sick, isolate yourself if you can. If you can't isolate from your cat, wear a mask and gloves around your pet when providing care. These safety precautions can help lower their chances of contracting COVID-19.
If you think your cat has COVID-19, try not to panic. Most cats only develop mild symptoms, so they likely aren't in danger. Your veterinarian can offer more guidance on assessing your cat's symptoms and caring for them at home.
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