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Can cats get Covid-19? And can you get it from them?

Can cats get COVID-19
(Image credit: getty)

"Can cats get COVID-19?" It’s a question that's on a lot of pet owner’s lips with many wondering if their cat or dog can pass the virus on to them. With news of minks passing a new strain of coronavirus to humans, do we need to again start worrying about whether house pets like cats can catch COVID-19 from us, or whether we can give it to them?

The news released this week about COVID-19 in mink farms by The World Health Organisation showed that this was a new strain of the COVID-19 virus, with several key mutations, which meant minks were able to pass it both on to each other and to the people who were farming them. However, although a worrying development, it seems that there is still little evidence that the average house pet poses any risk to you at the moment.

The US Centres for Disease Control and prevention (CDC)  website states just that. Although it seems that the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) originally came from an animal, most likely a bat, the advice on the CDC website is that, "At this time, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Of course, significant isn’t the same as none at all, so we dig deeper into the specific risks both from and to cats and dogs from coronavirus below.

Can cats get coronavirus?

Although you may have read that cats commonly get coronavirus, it is likely referring to a different strain to that affecting human populations. Specifically, it’s called feline coronavirus (FCoV) and is very widespread: in fact, 80 to 90% of multi-cat households are infected with it. It is transmitted via feces, an issue because cats self-groom and so this is a way for the infection to be passed on, especially if they share a litter tray. If they do contract it, it affects their digestive system, but usually causes little harm.

Cats can technically contract the human strain of coronavirus as they possess the receptors in their respiratory tracts that COVID-19 can bind to. This has been demonstrated in laboratory conditions, and infected cats were then able to pass it on to other cats, but there is no evidence to show they can pass it to humans.

It does seem in rare cases people can pass the human version of coronavirus to cats – there was a confirmed case in the UK and two in New York (not to mention big cats like lions and tigers at a NY zoo). However, in all the cases involving pet cats they showed only mild clinical signs of the virus and recovered within a few days. There was also no evidence to suggest that pet cats could directly transmit COVID-19 back to humans. 

Despite the very low risks, if you want to ensure the safety of your cat, the CDC recommends the following:

- Do not let cats interact with people or other animals outside the household.

- Keep cats indoors when possible to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.

- If a person inside the household becomes sick, isolate that person from everyone else, including pets.

Feline coronavirus symptoms

If infected with feline coronavirus most cats display no signs. Some cases present as mild, self-limiting diarrhea caused by the virus damaging the cat’s small intestinal cells. As it is so common most vets don’t even test for it as it often goes undetected and almost all cats recover without needing any treatment.

Can I catch Coronavirus from stroking my cat?

Although COVID-19 is known to survive on some surfaces for hours or even days, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states “Although we know certain bacteria and fungi can be carried on fur and hair, there is no evidence that viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19, can spread to people from the skin, fur or hair of pets.”

Of course, as pets can carry other germs and bacteria, it’s always good practice to wash your hands properly before and after interacting with your cat, whether you are sick or not. It’s also sensible to not touch your face while petting your feline friend.

Jamie Middleton

Jamie Middleton is a freelance editor and writer - or at least he is when he is permitted to by his cat Pirate, who enjoys the warmth of laptops too much to allow being creative to get in the way.