So, Can My Cat Carry Coronavirus or What?
Understanding the current consensus on cats and Covid-19
Pets can be a source of great comfort during self-isolation — as long you aren’t freaking out about them catching or spreading Covid-19. Over the course of the pandemic, research on animals and the coronavirus has produced conflicting results, so it’s understandable if you’re unsure about the safety of your furry friend.
Right now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control maintains that “there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus” and that the “risk of animals spreading Covid-19 to people is considered to be low.” That means you can probably rest easy about catching the disease from your pet. Still, it’s worth considering the evidence, and doing so within two broad frameworks: human-to-animal transmission and animal-to-human transmission.
There is evidence that some animals can test positive for Covid-19 and get sick. Tigers and lions with respiratory issues at New York’s Bronx Zoo produced positive test results in April, shortly after a Belgian house cat and a Pomeranian and a German shepherd in Hong Kong also tested positive. In late April, two New York house cats tested positive as well. These infections suggested that animals can catch Covid-19 from humans, since the zookeepers and pet owners were considered the most likely spreaders. As an expert told my colleague Dana Smith at Elemental, dog and cat infections are possible, “but they’re very rare.”
Cats and ferrets seem to be more susceptible to infection with Covid-19 than other animals. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, early lab research suggests that “cats are the most susceptible species for SARS-CoV-2, and cats can be affected with clinical disease. In the laboratory setting cats were able to transmit infection to other cats.” As Dana reported in Elemental, this may be because cats’ ACE2 cell receptors, which the virus uses to latch onto cells, are somewhat similar to those of humans, but that remains an open question.
Whether animals can spread the disease to people or other animals is a different story. A non-peer-reviewed study posted to bioRxiv suggested that cats and ferrets could catch Covid-19 and spread it among animals of the same species, but it didn’t show that they could spread the disease to humans. (A veterinarian took issue with that study in Nature, saying its irresponsible claims that could lead to the “unnecessary persecution of cats.”)
The bottom line is that the risk of catching Covid-19 from a pet remains low — far lower than the risk that you might catch it from another human. The World Health Organization maintains that there’s “no evidence” that cats and ferrets “can transmit the disease to human and play a role in spreading COVID-19,” noting that human-to-human transmission remains the dominant transmission route. While it’s still important to practice good hygiene after handling your pet (no “licking, kissing, or sharing food,” warns the WHO), they remain far safer to be around than your fellow humans.