As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds all over the world, people want to know how to keep safe from the dangers of the disease.
Pet owners fear for both themselves and their animals, as questions regarding their exposure to the virus arise.
As scientists discover more and more information about COVID-19, cat owners want to know if cats can get coronavirus and, if so, can they pass it on to their owners?
Here is the current information available on this pressing matter:
COVID-19 and the Feline Coronavirus Are Different
Both the COVID-19 virus and the feline coronavirus are part of the same family of viruses called Coronaviridae. They are all RNA viruses that display club-like spikes projecting from their surface.
The viruses from this family “cause a variety of diseases in mammals and birds”, which range from enteritis in cows and pigs, (feline) infectious peritonitis in cats, upper respiratory diseases in chicken, but also potentially lethal respiratory diseases in humans.
While there are many viruses in the Coronaviridae family, each of them is specific to only one or several species of animals. It is important to understand that not all coronaviruses can infect all species.
The feline coronavirus is called FCoV and it causes a common viral infection in cats. For most cats, the disease is asymptomatic, while in others it can cause mild diarrhea.
However, in some cases, the FCoV virus can suffer a mutation and the infection can turn into feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). While most cats that are infected with FCoV simply eliminate the virus after the infection, some cats seem to develop a persistent infection.
These cats are dangerous to other cats because they continue to spread the virus in their feces. Please note that the pathogenesis of FIP is still quite poorly understood, but testing and prevention remain the fundamental tools in the fight against FIP.
FCoV does not infect humans. Cats infected with FCoV are only a danger to other cats and not to the humans with whom they come in contact.
But what about COVID-19, the virus responsible for the 2020 pandemic? We know that it is highly contagious in humans, but is it contagious to animals as well? According to the CDC, there is currently no evidence that would suggest that pets can spread COVID-19. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that imported animals or animal products pose risks for spreading the virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) points out that there has been one instance of a dog that became infected with COVID-19 in Hong Kong, but that “there is no evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit COVID-19. COVID-19 is mainly spread through droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. To protect yourself, clean your hands frequently and thoroughly.”
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) says that “Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19 until we know more, pet owners should avoid contact with animals they are unfamiliar with and always wash their hands before and after they interact with animals. If owners are sick with COVID-19, they should try to limit the amount of direct contact with animals in their household, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food. If they need to care for their pet or be around animals while they are sick, they should wash their hands before and after they interact with them and wear a facemask.”
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), “Infectious disease experts and multiple international and domestic human and animal health organizations agree there is no evidence at this point to indicate that pets become ill with COVID-19 or that they spread it to other animals, including people.”
The SARS and MERS Precedent
A major concern regarding coronaviruses is that those that infect animals might become able to infect humans as well.
In fact, both the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), some of the most aggressive viral infections ever seen, are examples of diseases that are caused by coronaviruses that have originated in animals and then spread to people.
In fact, that might also be the case with COVID-19. Please note that the origins of the new coronavirus are still currently being studied. COVID-19 appears to be very similar to the SARS virus, which is why it has also been called the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
However, the CDC clearly points out that “there is no evidence that companion animals including pets, can spread COVID-19 or that they might be a source of infection in the United States.”
Staying Healthy Around Cats and Other Animals
While there is no evidence that cats can get COVID-19 at this time, there are some safety measures that all pet owners are instructed to follow.
The CDC points out that even though companion animals do not carry COVID-19, they still might carry other germs or bacteria that could make people sick.
During the pandemic, keeping as healthy as possible should be a priority. Here are CDC instructions for staying healthy around pets and other animals:
- “Wash your hands after handling animals, their food, waste, or supplies.
- Practice good pet hygiene and clean up after pets properly.
- Take pets to the veterinarian regularly and talk to your veterinarian if you have questions about your pet’s health.”
How to Protect Your Pet If You Get COVID-19
If you or another member of your family tests positive for COVID-19, then it is absolutely crucial that this person self-isolates.
That means that he or she must stay in a different part of the house than the rest of the family (a designated isolation room), which should also include pets.
The CDC says that “Although there have not been reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus. This can help ensure both you and your animals stay healthy.”
It is important that another member of the family cares for the animal and that the COVID-19-positive patients remain isolated.
While cats and other pets do not carry COVID-19 themselves, if they come into contact with a person who is infected with COVID-19, the animals might carry the virus on their fur. The new coronavirus has been shown to be very resistant, in the air, but also on various surfaces.
As a safety precaution, animals that have come into contact with people who are COVID-19 positive should be washed with disinfectant soap before they are taken to a secondary location. Please note that this is meant to remove the virus from their fur and that they themselves are not carriers of the virus.
The Link Between FIP and COVID-19
As part of the latest developments in the fight against COVID-19, doctors and scientists are working hard on several types of vaccines (which, sadly, are at least a year in the making), but they are performing clinical trials with several types of medication that could be potential treatments for the new coronavirus.
Among these drugs is Remdesivir, which is an antiviral, intravenous medicine that was previously used as an experimental compound in the fight against Ebola back in 2014, but that was eventually set aside in favor of other treatments and vaccines.
While Remdesivir was not used to treat Ebola, the drug’s efficacy in treating other viral diseases was tested after 2014. It was even studied in relation to SARS and MERS. The results of these tests showed that Romdesivir interferes with the virus’ ability to replicate.
Aside from that, GS-441524, the active component in Romdesivir, has also been used in veterinary studies as a potential treatment for feline infectious peritonitis, with very promising results.
However, it has yet to be authorized as a treatment for FIP. Dr. Niels C. Pedersen from the School of Veterinary Medicine, UC Davis, has said the following about the link between the FIP drug and a potential treatment for COVID-19:
“Dear Veterinarians, cat owners and public: I am being increasingly questioned about the relationship of GS-441524 and a very promising treatment for Covid-19, Remdesivir. GS-441524 is the the biologically active component of Remdesivir and has been widely used around the world to safely and effectively cure cats of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) for over 18 months. FIP is a common and highly fatal coronavirus disease of cats. GS-441424 and Remdesivir are almost identical drugs.
Remdesivir is the form of GS-441424 that Gilead Sciences has chosen to use in humans for COVID-19 and is now in clinical trials in China, USA and several other countries. Remdesivir is what is known as a prodrug. A prodrug is altered by infected cells to yield the active ingredient, which in this case is basically GS-441524 with the addition of one phosphate group (i.e., GS-5734).
Gilead scientists slightly altered GS-5734 to protect the added phosphate group and allow absorption into cells. This form of GS-441524 is what is known as Remdesivir. Once in the cells, cellular enzymes remove the protection to yield GS-5734. GS-5734 is further activated by the addition of two more phosphates in the cells to the triphosphate form of GS-441524.
This is the molecule that inhibits the production of viral RNA. We chose to use GS-441424 for treatment of the coronavirus disease FIP because it had identical antiviral properties to Remdesivir and at the time was not under consideration by Gilead Sciences for use in humans. GS-441524 is also much cheaper to make than Remdesivir.
Therefore, there was no apparent conflict with using one form for cats and another form for humans. However, Gilead came to believe that our cat research would interfere with their ability to get Remdesivir approved for humans and refused to grant animal rights for GS-441524.
This refusal, coupled with the desperate need around the world for the treatment of FIP, led to a Chinese black market for GS-441524. FIP is also a significant problem in pet cats in China, and Chinese cat owners were even more desperate for a treatment for FIP than owners in other countries. The first papers describing GS-441524 treatment of cats with FIP were published in 2018 and 2019 and thousands of cats have been treated since then.
In spite of this experience, the medical profession, including researchers, have been seemingly unaware of the use of GS-441524 for a coronavirus disease of cats and its relationship to Remdesivir. Veterinarians also have considerable experience with coronaviruses, coronavirus diseases, and coronavirus vaccines for swine, calves and poultry that has gone unappreciated. Pet ferrets also suffer a severe FIP-like disease caused by their own species of coronavirus.
What will happen to supplies of GS-441524 for cats if Remdesivir is proven to be safe and effective as a treatment for Covid-19? GS-441524 is the first critical step in the production of Remdesivir and it is logical to assume that there will be a competition between cats and humans for it. On a positive note, world wide approval for Remdesivir may also help change minds against granting animal rights for GS-441524. If approved for human use, Remdesivir, if not GS-441524, would become “legally” available through veterinarians. However, the safety and efficacy of Remdesivir for FIP has not been established.”
The fight against COVID-19 continues worldwide. With treatments and vaccines underway, there is hope that we will have the upper hand in this fight.
We can only hope that that day comes sooner rather than later. Until then, we must focus on prevention for ourselves and for our families, including our pets.
The world’s biggest scientific organizations unanimously state that there is no evidence to suggest that cats or other pets can become infected with COVID-19 and that they do not pose a threat to our well-being.