Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic kicked into high gear, people have been speculating about the possibility of humans infecting household pets or vice versa. There have been horrifying news of people throwing away their cats and dogs from high apartments in fear that they may spread the disease have been circling the internet for months but we’re slowly getting some clarity on the subject.
A study published in the journal Science on Wednesday, Apil 7, says that cats and ferrets can indeed become infected with the SARS-COV-2. Other pets such as dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks seem unable to contract the virus so far.
Both cats and ferrets seem to be highly susceptible to the virus and it attacks their respiratory systems and lungs much in the same way it attacks humans. The animals have also been observed infecting each other, so, the likelihood of a diseased animal infecting a person seems high.
What does this mean for you and your pet?
The results from this study do NOT mean that people should throw away their household pets away! As both cats and ferrets are (or can be) kept as 100% indoor pets, a healthy animal should pose no concern for their owner as it can’t infect them. The only way household cats can possibly get infected by the coronavirus is if their owners infect them. This means that while there’s no reason to throw away our household pets, we should simply steer clear of strays on the street as we would from a person.
Another thing to consider is that if you know you’re infected, you might want to try and distance yourself from your household cat for the time being to try and spare it from the disease.
“What these data do provide is support for the recommendation that people who are with COVID-19 should be distancing themselves, not only from other household members but also from their household pets, so as not to transmit the virus to their pets, particularly to cats or other felines,” said Daniel Kuritzkes, head of infectious diseases at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Are these results trustworthy?
So far, the study does seem reputable and well-executed, however, it should be noted that it’s still just one study. There will be much more research done on this topic in the coming weeks and months and we have more to learn about human-pet transmissions.
Additionally, during this study, the test subjects were infected intentionally so it’s not yet clear exactly how likely it is for a person to infect a cat or the other way around. While pet owners love to snuggle with their household pets we rarely touch stray cats nose-to-nose so the chance of getting infected from a stray animal seems unlikely.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there are almost no reports from people about infected animals. There have been very few people commenting about their cats or dogs getting infected (with this study commenting that dogs cannot get infected, throwing suspicion of such reports) but with 1.6 million infected people, one would expect the number of infected household pets to be at least in the hundreds of thousands by now.
One reported case that recently made the news was that of a tiger in the Bronx Zoo in New York City that started exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms and tested positive for the disease. A zookeeper that had been working closely with the animal also tested positive and it’s believed that this is how the animal got infected in the first place.
What was the purpose of the study?
The goal of the study in the Science journal wasn’t so much to examine how people should or shouldn’t interact with their household pets but to identify which animals can be used to test experimental vaccines and which – not. Animal testing may be a morally grey subject for a lot of people but with over 1.6 million documented Covid-19 cases worldwide and over 97,000 deaths as of April 10, moving as fast as possible is the priority.
The study was based on research done in China between January and February. “Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 in cats should be considered as an adjunct to elimination of COVID-19 in humans,” the authors of the study wrote.
As cats experience the virus in a very similar way to humans, they seem to be great test subjects for possible treatments and vaccines.
“It’s both interesting and not terribly surprising in the sense that with the original SARS epidemic, civet cats were implicated as one of the vectors that may have transmitted virus to humans,” said Daniel Kuritzkes.
Much more testing is about to be done, not only by the researchers of this study but by others as well. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said last Wednesday, April 8, that they too are going to look more closely “at the role of pets in the health crisis.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO epidemiologist, has said that “We don’t believe that they are playing a role in transmission but we think that they may be able to be infected from an infected person.”
Mike Ryan, an emergency expert at WHO has also urged people not to retaliate against animals.
“They’re beings in their own right and they deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. They are victims like the rest of us,” Ryan said.