The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact all our lives for the past year. Cat owners have had an additional worry, with some media reports discussing the possibility of infection in both large and domestic cats. As the vaccination program rolls out, many may be wondering: do our cats need vaccinating too?

Can cats actually catch Covid-19?

Yes, they can: SARS-CoV-2 (to give it its official name), has been found in domestic cats globally. Crucially, though: not in very many! The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) published an update in February 2021 in which it states that less than 200 cases have been found in companion animals, globally. Of these companion animals, most are cats and dogs. Now, there is no widespread testing program for our pets, and so cases may have been missed, but 200 worldwide is a very small number. 

Most of these cases are known to have been exposed to a person who has tested positive for coronavirus; so it is likely that they can catch it from us, their owners. However, it is thought to happen very rarely. Sensible precautions should be taken, such as good hand-washing before and after contact with our cats; and avoiding close contact such as cuddling if you test positive for coronavirus or are self-isolating. 

What about the new variants?

SARS-CoV-2 can mutate and form new variants on the existing virus, examples of this have been found in a few countries across the world, including the U.K. and Brazil. It is as yet unknown whether the newer variants of Covid-19 are any different in how they spread to other species. Again, there are no large testing schemes in place, but equally there have been no worrying large outbreaks of disease in companion animals. 

I thought coronavirus was common in cats?

This is a bit confusing! Feline Coronavirus (FCoV) is a common, contagious disease in cats, but despite the name is not associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. Feline coronavirus does not affect other animals or people. 

What symptoms do cats show with Covid-19, and how serious is it?

Of those 200 definite cases in pets, only about half of them showed any clinical signs. Therefore cats, just like people, can catch coronavirus but remain completely unaffected by it. However, of those that did show symptoms, they were generally mild. Respiratory signs such as sneezing and coughing were common, or gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea. Unlike in people, it does not seem to progress to severe disease. There have been no recorded deaths.

Covid-19 infection in cats doesn’t appear to be common and when it does happen, not very severe. It seems we cat owners can relax a little!

Can cats pass it back to us?

There is no known risk of coronavirus spread from pet cat to owner. Cats don’t often get infected, and when they do, they appear to only shed active virus particles for a short time. The study looking at pets living with covid-positive owners found that although nearly half of the cats had evidence that they had been infected with coronavirus. Of these, less than 20% had any recognised signs, and the virus was only isolated from one solitary cat. It is therefore very unlikely that our pet cats pose a danger to us this way.

Cats can, however, potentially act as fomites: virus particles can survive upon their fur (just as it survives on door-handles etc) and be transferred to their owners after physical contact. This is likely to be quite rare, but it is, as always, recommended to maintain excellent hygiene. This is especially necessary for owners of those sociable cats who like to pop into multiple households for the chance of a meal and some fuss!

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It is completely unnecessary to use any form of disinfectant (including disinfectant wipes) on your cat: they may be extremely harmful to your pet. If you are concerned that your cat has been in contact with a person positive for Covid-19, avoid close contact, ensure good hand-washing, and if necessary wipe your cat down with a damp cloth only.

Will a vaccine become available?

In short: yes. There are various pharmaceutical companies on the case already. 

Veterinary drug company Zoetis has been working on a vaccine for animals for some time. The preliminary studies performed in dogs and cats have already shown that the vaccine they are developing is safe, and appears to have good efficacy. However, the efforts are mostly focused currently on mink rather than domestic cats. 

Mink appear to be a susceptible species. They are often housed together in large numbers, which makes the virus more likely to spread rapidly through a population. Therefore, most vaccine efforts are focused on mink, but will likely eventually be available to domestic species. Work is also underway elsewhere in the world. The Federal Centre for Animal Health in Russia also getting close to developing a vaccine for use in rabbits, cats and other animals as well as mink. 

What do we do in the meantime?

Firstly, don’t panic! Infection in cats appears to be uncommon, and mild when it does occur. They also do not seem to be a method of infection back to people except rarely. A vaccine is on the horizon but will likely be some time in the making. In the meantime? Maintain excellent hygiene, try not to worry and enjoy your feline friend. 

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