A kitten had to be put down after catching Covid from its owner during the UK’s first wave, scientists have revealed.
The cat was a four-month-old Ragdoll that got taken to the vet in April 2020 because it was struggling to breathe.
Its condition got worse in the following days and the kitten had to be put down, with post-mortem tests revealing it had lung damage from viral pneumonia and signs of infection with coronavirus, which causes the condition.
The owner suffered from Covid symptoms the month before but couldn’t get tested, and scientists concluded they had passed the virus to their pet.
A second case, both of them reported by experts at the University of Glasgow, saw a six-year-old Siamese cat also contract the illness from its owner in May but then go on to recover.
The scientists said there is no evidence that pets can spread the virus to humans but the connection needs investigating so it doesn’t trigger future outbreaks.
In South Korea officials have even developed a testing and quarantine system for pets that develop symptoms of the virus.
Animals are known to be susceptible to the virus – it is believed to have emerged in bats and other small mammals, and caused outbreaks on Danish mink farms – but it’s unclear how sick it makes them.
The cat that died was a Ragdoll kitten (left) that developed pneumonia after its owner had Covid, and the Glasgow researchers also reported that a Siamese cat (right) developed mild Covid but recovered (both are stock images, not the cats that got infected)
University of Glasgow researchers tested swab samples from nearly 400 sick cats across the UK (shown map right) but only two were positive for coronavirus, in April and May 2020. One of the cats even lived in a household with another cat that tested negative, suggesting the cases are rare
‘These two cases of human-to-animal transmission, found in the feline population in the UK, demonstrate why it is important that we improve our understanding of animal SARS-CoV-2 infection,’ said Glasgow’s Professor Margaret Hosie.
Professor Hosie led the study and said cases of the coronavirus have been found in various types of cat as well as dogs, hamsters and ferrets.
CATS AND COVID: WHAT WE KNOW
How do cats catch coronavirus?
Cats become infected in the same way as humans do, by inhaling droplets carrying the virus.
There have been numerous cases around the world and almost all appear to have caught it off their owners. Animals appear to be far less susceptible to infection and less likely to get severely ill.
Cats of all sizes have been affected, with Nadia, a four-year-old Malayan tiger at New York’s Bronx Zoo, catching the bug but making a full recovery.
Could dogs and other animals get it too?
Yes, there have been cases in dogs and other pets around the world, with infections confirmed in dogs, hamsters, ferrets and minks. The virus is thought to have emerged in a bat in China and to have infected a pangolin before spreading to people.
Can humans catch Covid from infected pets?
There is no evidence that animals transmit it to humans, with research suggesting they do not shed enough virus to be infectious to people.
However, scientists have warned that animals could transport the virus around in the same way that it can be picked up from door handles or tables.
What about animals spreading it to each other?
There is evidence that cats can spread coronavirus to other cats.
In May, researchers at the University of Wisconsin conducted an experiment when they infected three cats with the virus, then put three Covid-free felines in with them.
The three newcomers went on to test positive after catching it from the infected animals.
How bad are the symptoms of the virus in cats?
Covid-19 seems to be far less deadly in animals than in humans. The first British cat to test positive showed mild symptoms but made a full recovery.
Many other felines which have tested positive displayed no symptoms at all.
But there has been at least one case of a cat having to be put down after it developed severe pneumonia. It’s not clear if it would have died naturally.
I have tested positive – how can I protect my pet?
Public Health England has urged pet owners to wash their hands before and after contact with animals. The British Veterinary Association advises infected people to restrict contact with animals. Owners who test positive should also keep cats indoors if possible.
Her research found Covid cases in cats had been found in at least 15 countries during the pandemic, including the UK, US, France, Spain and Germany.
Both the animals in her study had symptoms of the infection – the Ragdoll developed pneumonia and struggled to breathe, while the Siamese cat had a runny nose and conjunctivitis in its eyes. Both their owners had Covid symptoms, too.
They were found in a batch of 387 tests done on cats that had similar symptoms, of which 19 were estimated to have come from homes where people had Covid.
The two were the only positive results, suggesting the cases are rare, and the Siamese cat even lived in the same house as another cat that tested negative.
The Siamese cat is believed to have been the one announced by the UK Government in July last year as the first case of an infected pet – that test was processed at a lab in Weybridge, Surrey. The location of the Ragdoll is unknown.
England’s chief veterinary officer, Christine Middlemiss, said at the time: ‘This is a very rare event with infected animals detected to date only showing mild clinical signs and recovering within in a few days.’
Professor Hosie said it was vital to know whether creatures could spread the virus back to people.
It’s possible they act as a ‘reservoir’ for the virus without being noticeably sick, meaning they carry it around, but not clear if it can be transmitted to people.
Her concern was that, if pet-to-owner transmission is possible, it could be a source of future outbreaks.
‘Currently, animal-to-human transmission represents a relatively low risk to public health in areas where human-to-human transmission remains high,’ Professor Hosie said.
‘However, as human cases decrease, the prospect of transmission among animals becomes increasingly important as a potential source of SARS-CoV-2 reintroduction to humans.
‘It is therefore important to improve our understanding of whether exposed animals could play any role in transmission.’
Governments have generally not done much to investigate or prevent Covid transmission among animals because human-to-human transmissions is such a big problem.
The biggest incident was when Denmark culled around 17million mink on its fur farms because a new variant of the virus emerged in the animals. There were suspected cases of it spreading to farmers but these were unconfirmed.
South Korea has taken action to prevent the virus spreading between pets and their owners, and has a quarantine system set up for animals that test positive.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said in February it had developed a testing and quarantine protocol for pets suspected of carrying the virus.
Its announcement came after a cat living in a missionary centre in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province, tested positive for coronavirus on January 24.
Just like humans, cats and dogs will be required to quarantine for 14 days if they are positive for Covid, but a health ministry official said at the time: ‘There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus infections spreading from pets to humans.’