Did a Cat Really Get COVID-19 from Its Owner in Belgium?

After reports of two dogs testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 in Hong Kong, the most recent news to cause alarm among animal owners is that of a cat in Belgium with apparent symptoms of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The owner of the cat had recently tested positive for the virus. It is reported that the cat developed breathing difficulties and diarrhoea one week later. Vets at the University of Liège, Belgium then tested the cat for SARS-CoV-2 and subsequently detected the viral genome in vomit and a stool sample.

Should we now be concerned about the virus spreading to cats? To be succinct—not yet. Several key questions need to be answered before any conclusions can be drawn from this case.

Many people are asking if the coronavirus detected in the cat really is SARS-CoV-2 or whether it could be the completely different cat-only coronavirus, which has been infecting cats worldwide for decades. The feline coronavirus exists in two forms: one causes mild gastrointestinal disease and the other causes a highly fatal disease known as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).

Feline coronaviruses look very different to SARS-CoV-2 at the genetic level. This means that as long as the correct test was run for the cat in question, it should be easy to differentiate between the two viruses.

The standard test for SARS-CoV-2 only detects the viral genome. It is very important to bear in mind that this test does not detect infectious or "live" virus particles, so it is impossible to tell whether the viral genome found in the cat was from a particle that could replicate. To demonstrate infectivity, many more tests are needed. It is possible that the cat ate contaminated food and the virus simply passed through its gut. This explanation is less likely if large quantities of genetic material were detected in the cat, but this data has not been released.

Whereas the two canine SARS-CoV-2 cases had no obvious clinical signs relating to COVID-9, the cat at the centre of the latest media attention did have respiratory symptoms. But as every vet knows, cats can have breathing difficulties for many reasons, from feline asthma to heart disease. Similarly, there is a long list of causes of diarrhoea in cats. Without knowing any clinical details of this case, we can't tell whether COVID-19 was responsible for the disease or if this was just an upsetting coincidence.

Thankfully, there is still zero evidence of pets transmitting the virus to humans. It is also reassuring that a large veterinary diagnostic lab recently stated they have now tested thousands of cat and dog samples for SARS-CoV-2 with no positive cases. Also, given that as of March 30 there are over 720,000 human cases worldwide, it is safe to assume that if this virus readily caused disease in pets, we would know by now.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Sarah L Caddy is a Clinical Research Fellow in Viral Immunology and Veterinary Surgeon at the University of Cambridge, U.K.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Representative photo of a cat. There is no strong evidence to show a cat in Belgium caught the new coronavirus from its owner. iStock.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.