Ask any pet owner and they’ll likely tell you their furry four-legged companion is not just an animal but a member of their family.
It’s no wonder then some owners are concerned when it was reported last week two cats tested positive for COVID-19 in New York state, making it the first cases in companion animals in the United States, according to federal officials.
“At this time, it looks like there are some cases where cats are contracting the disease from people. We haven't seen any evidence yet of people contracting the disease from cats,” said Dr. Ryan Dutton, a veterinarian and owner of Brainerd Animal Hospital.
It may be possible for people to pass along COVID-19 to cats, there are no known cases where cats have infected humans. The New York cats that tested positive had mild respiratory illnesses and were from different parts of that state.
The cats are expected to recover and are believed to have contracted the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 from people in their households or neighborhoods, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“It is something that we definitely need to be aware of and be taking some extra precautions with our pets at this time until we know more as far as whether or not we can get it from them and how susceptible they are to the disease,” Dutton said.
There are about 18,870 pet cats in Minnesota based on the 518,000 cats seen at Banfield Hospitals in 2017. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2017-2018 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, 58.39 million cats were kept as pets nationwide.
“We’re deemed an essential business,” Dutton said of veterinary clinics remaining open. “Right now, we cannot do nonessential procedures, so we’re limited to essential surgeries and then basically urgent care — sick animals that need urgent care — and then some vaccines.”
In the cases of the two New York cats, one belonged to a COVID-19 patient and the other did not reside with people with known COVID-19 infections but may have contracted the virus by living with mildly ill or asymptomatic household members or through contact with an outsider.
“We really need more information in both of those cases. Right now, it looks like it’s quite rare that cats can get it,” Dutton said. “We haven’t seen any cases here, but throughout the country where there have been a few cases, the symptoms have been relatively mild.”
There is no evidence currently animals play a “significant role” in spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be “low,” according to the CDC.
“With cats right now, we’re recommending keeping them inside as much as possible just to limit their exposure to other people and other cats,” Dutton said.
Dr. Steven Rehnblom is a veterinarian at Animal Care Center in Baxter. And like Dutton, Rehnblom said his clinic has received a few calls from area residents asking about COVID-19.
“Right now, we’re really recommending pretty much the same precautions that we're taking with people: avoiding contact with pets with people or pets outside the household, avoiding dog parks or parks where there’s a higher concentration of dogs,” Dutton said of advice for owners.
If a cat shows signs of COVID-19 such as a fever, sneezing and/or a runny nose, their owner should contact their veterinarian to definitively determine if the animal is infected.
“They will do an exam, rule out any other potential causes of respiratory disease and then if it’s deemed that it potentially could be coronavirus there is testing that can be done by the state, but it’s not recommended to be done routinely at this time,” Dutton said.
According to the CDC, certain bacteria and fungi can be carried on animal fur and hair, but there is no evidence the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can spread to people from coming into contact with the skin, fur or hair of pets.
“No known cases of coronavirus have been caught by people, or transferred to people, from pets,” Rehnblom said.
Pets have other types of coronaviruses that can make them sick, like canine and feline coronaviruses, according to the CDC, and these other coronaviruses cannot infect people and are not related to the current COVID-19 outbreak that has killed a Crow Wing County resident.
“Cats are still considered to be safe for people to be around. If people are ill with COVID-19 … out of an abundance of caution, we are recommending that other people take care of your pets if you’re ill with COVID-19 — out of an abundance of caution,” Rehnblom said.
If a pet owner is sick with COVID-19, he or she should avoid contact with the animal, according to the CDC, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food or bedding.
“Recommend is washing hands after handling your pets and not allowing them to lick you in the face things like that, and those are guidelines that we recommend, regardless of a pandemic occurring,” Rehnblom said.
The CDC does not recommend a pet owner taking their pet to the veterinary clinic if they suspect their cat has COVID-19 but rather call the veterinarian first; some veterinarians may offer telemedicine consultations or other plans for seeing and treating sick pets.
“As a general rule, my recommendation to anybody is not to handle cats unfamiliar with you — and this is before the pandemic — because if you receive a deep scratch or a bite from a stray cat, you really do need to be treated for rabies prophylaxis,” Rehnblom said.
If a pet owner is sick and must care for the pet themselves, the CDC recommends they wear a cloth face mask and wash their hands before and after interacting with the animal.
“The risk of someone getting sick from a pet is extremely low, well below any value you would get by pet ownership — the companionship, the love that we get from our pets,” Rehnblom said. “As a matter of fact, there’s a great deal of interest in pet adoptions right now with people not able to work.”
Guidelines for handling pets
Do not let pets interact with people or other animals outside the household.
Keep cats indoors when possible to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least 6 feet from other people and animals.
Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention