Opinion: Can cats really get or pass on COVID-19, as a report from Belgium suggests?

Should we be concerned about the coronavirus spreading to cats’ Not yet, says Dr Sarah Caddy in this article for The Conversation, even after a concerning report from Belgium.

After reports of two dogs testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 in Hong Kong, the most recent news to cause alarm among animal owners is that of a cat in Belgium with apparent symptoms of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The owner of the cat had recently tested positive for the virus. It is reported that the cat developed breathing difficulties and diarrhoea one week later. Vets at the University of Liège, Belgium then tested the cat for SARS-CoV-2 and subsequently detected the viral genome in vomit and a stool sample.

Should we now be concerned about the virus spreading to cats’ To be succinct - not yet. Several key questions need to be answered before any conclusions can be drawn from this case.

Many people are asking if the coronavirus detected in the cat really is SARS-CoV-2 or whether it could be the completely different cat-only coronavirus, which has been infecting cats worldwide for decades. The feline coronavirus exists in two forms: one causes mild gastrointestinal disease and the other causes a highly fatal disease known as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) .

Feline coronaviruses look very different to SARS-CoV-2 at the genetic level. This means that as long as the correct test was run for the cat in question, it should be easy to differentiate between the two viruses.

The standard test for SARS-CoV-2 only detects the viral genome. It is very important to bear in mind that this test does not detect infectious or "live" virus particles, so it is impossible to tell whether the viral genome found in the cat was from a particle that could replicate. To demonstrate infectivity, many more tests are needed. It is possible that the cat ate contaminated food and the virus simply passed through its gut. This explanation is less likely if large quantities of genetic material were detected in the cat, but this data has not been released.

Whereas the two canine SARS-CoV-2 cases had no obvious clinical signs relating to COVID-9, the cat at the centre of the latest media attention did have respiratory symptoms. But as every vet knows, cats can have breathing difficulties for many reasons, from feline asthma to heart disease. Similarly, there is a long list of causes of diarrhoea in cats. Without knowing any clinical details of this case, we can’t tell whether COVID-19 was responsible for the disease or if this was just an upsetting coincidence.

Thankfully, there is still zero evidence of pets transmitting the virus to humans. It is also reassuring that a large veterinary diagnostic lab recently stated they have now tested thousands of cat and dog samples for SARS-CoV-2 with no positive cases. Also, given that as of March 30 there are over 720,000 human cases worldwide , it is safe to assume that if this virus readily caused disease in pets, we would know by now.

Sarah L Caddy , Clinical Research Fellow in Viral Immunology and Veterinary Surgeon, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

University uses spin-out company’s innovation to co-ordinate donations of equipment in fight against COVID-19

Sign up to receive our weekly research email

Our selection of the week’s biggest Cambridge research news and features direct to your inbox from the University. Enter your name and email address below and select ’Subscribe’ to sign up.

The University of Cambridge will use your name and email address to send you our weekly research news email. We are committed to protecting your personal information and being transparent about what information we hold. Please read our email privacy notice for details.