The latest research on pets and COVID-19

Content originally from UK Research and Innovation

The latest research on pets and COVID-19

A small dog and a kitten sleep at home

Credit: Olga Novikova / Getty Images

With the rapid global spread of COVID-19, one concern for the public and for pet-owners has been whether COVID-19 can spread between people and pets.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some animals have tested positive for the virus. This includes a small number of dogs and cats, as well as a tiger, lion and mink. This occurred after close contact with people with COVID-19.

Research has also shown that ferrets and cats can spread the infection to other animals of the same species in laboratory studies.

So what is the latest research now telling us when it comes to our pets and COVID-19 transmission?

New study finds two new cases in cats

Cats have been the focus of the latest research findings on pets and COVID-19 transmission.

A team of scientists at the University of Glasgow recently identified two known cases of human-to-cat COVID-19 transmission in the UK.

The study was led by the University of Glasgow and published in the Veterinary Record (BVA journals) with researchers at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR). It describes two cases of human-to-cat SARS-CoV-2 transmission, found as part of a COVID-19 screening programme of the feline population in the UK.

The study was funded by Wellcome ISSF COVID Response Fund and supported by the Medical Research Council.

No evidence of cat-to-human transmission

Through this recent CVR study, here is what we now currently know about cats and COVID-19:

  • at present, there is no evidence of cat-to-human transmission
  • there is no evidence that cats, dogs or other domestic animals play any role in the epidemiology (the incidence and distribution) of human infections with SARS-CoV-2
  • researchers found no evidence of species adaptation in the cat’s viral sequences.

Researchers concluded that any mutations present in the second cat’s viral genome were likely also present in the owner’s virus.

Low risk to public health

So what does all this mean to us when it comes to COVID-19 transmission?

Currently, whether cats, for example, with COVID-19 could naturally transmit the virus to other animals, or back to humans, remains unknown. However, the risk so far appears low.

Professor Margaret Hosie from the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, lead author of the CVR study, said:

Currently, animal-to-human transmission represents a relatively low risk to public health in areas where human-to-human transmission remains high.

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.

If animals become a reservoir for SARS-CoV-2, in which variants can develop and potentially subsequently transmit to humans, there are implications for vaccine escape.

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.

What other pets are affected?

There have been a few isolated reports of COVID-19 infection in dogs, but no systematic studies. The first confirmed case was that of a 17-year old Pomeranian dog in Hong Kong.

To date, what we know is that COVID-19 infections have only been reported in:

  • cats
  • dogs
  • hamsters
  • ferrets.

There is no evidence yet that birds, including ducks and chickens, are susceptible to COVID-19 infection.

The factors that govern why one animal is susceptible to the new coronavirus while others are more resistant are unknown, but might reveal more about how this virus spreads and causes disease.

What happens next?

When it comes to our pets and COVID-19 transmission, it’s a situation which will be constantly monitored.

Considering the location of the initial outbreak at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, it is likely the virus jumped to humans at a wet market. Where, animals such as bats and pangolins are traded illegally.

We also now know that this species-jumping led COVID-19 to rapidly infect a vast number of people through our complex relationship with:

  • trade
  • travel
  • land use
  • agriculture
  • food systems.

This rapid spread is why continued research is vital. Previous work supported through response-mode funding by UK Research and Innovation research councils has informed pandemic preparedness policies and surveillance strategies for tackling infectious diseases generally.

This wide scope of work now continues to provide the strong platform from which research currently targeting the COVID-19 pandemic is directed. The animal-human interface is also an important priority on the World Health Organisation (WHO) R&D Roadmap for COVID-19.

Professor Margaret Hosie, said:

It is important to improve our understanding of whether exposed animals could play any role in transmission.

This means going forward, it is important to be continually informed and prepared.

Cats and COVID-19 – what you can do

  • the latest CVR study, as well as two previous studies demonstrate that cats are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection
  • cats are most likely to become infected from close interactions with infected people
  • there are reports that some animals develop illness with symptoms of respiratory distress and diarrhoea that has cleared up
  • to help prevent your cat from getting infected with coronavirus, the advice is to maintain good hygiene, including hand washing, while handling and interacting with your cat.

Additional information

The research councils who have supported the response-mode funding include:

Last updated: 28 May 2021