Many cat owners are now working from home, self-isolating or social distancing. While cats are pretty adaptable and may well enjoy having owners at home, there is also a lot of discussion asking if pets can spread coronavirus, should they be allowed outside (if they normally go out) and what to do if you have contracted the virus. People are also thinking about what to do if their cat is ill, or if they have kittens which are reaching an age when they need to be vaccinated or neutered and veterinary services are limited (either by necessity or by government legislation). Those working in homing centres or have been involved in trap, neuter and return programmes have other pressures upon them too and we will cover these in a separate item.
COVID-19 infection results from human to human transmission of coronaviruses. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses which can be killed by nearly all common disinfectants – we should be relieved that no special disinfection chemical or process is required and that this virus doesn’t survive well in soap and alcohol.
Hence, hand washing, as we have been advised, is very important. Wiping and cleaning surfaces removes the virus from the environment. These are great weapons in our fight against infection.
Can people can share the virus with pets?
There are reports of 2 dogs testing positive for the virus in Hong Kong. Tests on 17 dogs and eight cats from households with confirmed COVID-19 cases or persons in close contact with confirmed patients, showed that only two dogs had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. One had developed antibodies to the virus which means it was infected but showed no sign of the disease. There is now also a report of a cat in Belgium showing the protein from the virus in faeces and vomit, but no report yet as to whether it had antibodies and was therefore infected. The cat had been unwell, but again we do not know if this was linked or coincidental. These findings indicate that dogs and cats are not infected easily with this virus, and there is no evidence that they play a role in the spread of the virus.
The spokesman in Hong Kong reminded pet owners ‘to adopt good hygiene practices (including handwashing before and after being around or handling animals, their food, or supplies, as well as avoiding kissing them) and to maintain a clean and hygienic household environment. People who are sick should restrict contacting animals. If there are any changes in the health condition of the pets, advice from a veterinarian should be sought as soon as possible. There is currently no evidence that pet animals become sick and under no circumstances should they abandon their pets’.
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and World Health Organization currently states there is no evidence that companion animals can spread the disease or become sick from it and there is no indication for taking measures that may compromise companion animal welfare.
Therefore, there is no need to consider rehoming pets or abandoning them during this pandemic because of worries about the disease being able to spread between people and pets. Human outbreaks are driven by person to person contact.
If you do have COVID-19, then it is sensible to restrict contact with pets until more is known about the virus. When possible, people who are sick or under medical attention for COVID-19 should avoid close contact with their pets and have another member of their household care for their animals. If they must look after their pet, they should maintain good hygiene practices and wear a face mask if possible.
Can the virus be passed on pets’ coats?
There has also been discussion about what are called ‘fomites’ – simply put, these are objects or materials which are likely to carry infection, such as clothes, utensils, and furniture. When people sneeze or cough on these objects or transfer virus onto their hands and then touch things, the virus can remain there to be touched by another person who can then transfer it to their mouth, or nose. In this context, could cats and dogs be considered as fomites?
Smooth (non-porous) surfaces (eg, countertops, doorknobs) transmit viruses better than porous materials (eg, paper money, pet fur), because porous, and especially fibrous, materials absorb and trap the virus, making it harder to pick it up through simple touch. Under laboratory conditions, the coronavirus seems to be able to survive on smooth surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours, but less time on surfaces such as cardboard (24 hours). The amount of virus decreases quickly over time on each of those surfaces, so that risk of infection from touching them will probably decrease over time as well.
No research has been done about whether it can be passed on animal’s coats, but because dog and cat hair is porous and fibrous, it is very unlikely that you would contract COVID-19 by stroking or playing with your pets. However, it’s always a good idea to wash your hands before and after interacting with them.
Some sources are recommending keeping cats indoors because we are not 100% sure whether the virus can be transmitted on the coat, and that would certainly totally remove any risk. This is to protect others (in case you are positive for the virus) if they touch your cat, and yourself, should people transfer the virus to your cat. However, most cats don’t want to be touched by other people. Keeping a cat inside which is used to access outside could be very stressful for the cat and hence also for owners. Once again common sense should prevail. If you live somewhere with very few other people around, then there is a very limited risk, if you are in a densely populated area and you have a very friendly cat, you might consider it. If you have a cat which is known to visit other people, ask them not to let the cat in or to touch it (you can put a paper collar on it with a message). Don’t interact with cats that are not your own. If you test positive and your cats go out, avoid close contact with it.
Remember too that cats groom themselves frequently and will remove any fomites from the coat in a way which dogs will not. Don’t be tempted to wipe your cat with antiseptic wipes because it will groom chemicals off its coat, and cats can be very sensitive to certain disinfectants which may make them unwell.
Visiting your vet
The COVID-19 outbreak has affected veterinary services around the world, as it has other services or businesses. Veterinary clinics are subject to strict control measures according to the government or professional body of the country they are in. This includes closing to all but emergency cases and cancelling routine procedures such as neutering or vaccination.
International Cat Care’s veterinary division has a forum on which vets from all over the world discuss these matters and there is a great deal of anxiety in terms of keeping a service going, what can and cannot be done and how to continue to remain open to treat animals, as well as how to protect staff and visiting clients in the clinic. If your pet is unwell or you need veterinary advice or need routine medicine, call your veterinary clinic to discuss your concerns before visiting.
The clinic is likely to have precautions in place at the clinic to protect both you and the staff, such as asking you to wash the cat carrier, to wait in your car before your appointment rather than in the waiting room, and to wash or disinfect hands before and after visiting.
They may be able to offer you a telephone or video consultation to avoid you having to visit the surgery. Have all the information ready when you phone so they can triage your call effectively e.g. how long your cat has been unwell, when they were last vaccinated or wormed for example.
When your cat is unwell it can be a very stressful time. Vets and nurses will be aware of this and try to make the process as straightforward as possible, but bear with them – these are not usual times and you may need to wait longer to be seen, or accept that the clinic may not be able to see your cat unless in an emergency. Be reassured that veterinary professionals want to do their best for their clients and pets and the situation is changing rapidly.
If neutering your kitten has to be delayed, don’t let it go outside as female cats could easily become pregnant around the age of 4 to 6 months. Homing organisations are having to close their doors and a surge of unwanted kittens when they reopen will not help them or the cats. Likewise, if a kitten has not had its initial vaccinations, don’t let it go outside as it will not be protected from cat diseases such as cat flu and enteritis.
Adult cats which have been vaccinated regularly are likely to have a longer duration of immunity and therefore short delays are unlikely to cause an increased risk of disease, however, take your veterinary professional’s advice if you are concerned. These are difficult times and veterinary clinics must follow government and professional body guidance.
If you are having trouble seeing your veterinarian, please do not treat your cat at home, for example using human medications. These can make cats severely unwell, paracetamol, for example, is highly toxic to cats.
Helping your cat at home
Changes in routine can be unsettling for all of us, including our cats, so if you are working from home or self-isolating try to keep routines similar. With more family members at home, ensure cats have places to hide and rest away from the extra noise and easily accessible litter trays and other resources such as food and water. See https://icatcare.org/advice/making-your-home-cat-friendly/ for more information on keeping your home cat-friendly in these difficult times. International Cat Care will be providing more information in an upcoming webinar on all these things.
It is sensible to prepare for self-isolation or hospitalisation, by talking to family about care of your pet and thinking forward about what your pet might need (food, medicines).
For more detailed information on COVID-19 see the World Health Organisation (WHO) website (www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019). The AVMA also provide information for pet owners: https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/2020-03/covid-19-faq-pet-owners_031620.pdf.