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Recently, two cats from Belgium and Hong Kong tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.1, 2 During the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak, cats living in close contact with people with SARS were found to be positive for SARS-CoV.3, 4 The susceptibility of domestic cats (Felis domesticus) to SARS-CoV infection was then studied.4, 5 Experimental inoculations resulted in infection and viral shedding, although without clinical signs. The infected cats were also found to transmit the disease to susceptible animals living in close contact with them.4
The pathological changes induced by the experimental inoculation of SARS-CoV in cats were similar to those found in people except for the absence of syncytia and hyaline membranes in infected cells.5
In the current coronavirus outbreak, researchers at the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute in China found that experimental inoculation of SARS-CoV-2 in cats resulted in infection without clinical signs of illness. Infected cats also transmitted the virus to other cats that were in close contact via respiratory droplets,6, 7 although the transmission potential might be low since the infected cats showed no signs of illness.
Neutralising antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 were also detected in the cat population of Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 epidemic, indicating that cats might be able to become infected and can mount an immune response just like people.8 However, the higher titre of SARS-CoV-2 neutralising antibodies reported in this serological survey was linked to the cats living near Covid-19-positive individuals.8 This suggests that cats might not be easily infected with SARS-CoV-2 under natural conditions.
Cats were found to be highly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 compared to other domestic animal species investigated.9
The United States Department of Agriculture National Veterinary Services Laboratories has recently diagnosed a Malayan tiger with SARS-CoV-2.
The tiger was kept at the Bronx Zoo, New York City, and is suspected to have been infected by a positive asymptomatic zookeeper. The big cats were tested when they started showing signs of respiratory illness.10 This is the first report of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from a person to a non-domestic animal.
Even though experimental evidence indicates there is a possibility of SARS-CoV-2 infection in cats, and the subsequent transmission to other cats in close proximity, there is no conclusive proof of transmission to other cats or to people under natural conditions. The findings reported here are mainly based on the experimental inoculation of SARS-CoV-2 and therefore may not mimic natural conditions.
However, due to the uncertainty regarding host susceptibility and transmission potential of SARS-CoV-2 in animals, people are advised to adopt appropriate precautions while handling animals, especially those species belonging to the Felidae family.
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