The first pets in the United States, two cats from New York State, have tested positive for the virus that is causing the worldwide pandemic, the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control announced Wednesday.
The cats, from different parts of the state, are showing only mild symptoms and are expected to be fine.
Testing positive does not mean the cats have the same illness that people have. Nor does it mean that the cats can pass on the illness to people. And tests for pets are not the same as those for people, so no humans missed out on testing because the cats were tested.
Veterinarians took samples from both cats that were tested at a private lab. The test results were then confirmed at a national veterinary lab. The owners brought both cats to veterinarians because they showed symptoms of a respiratory infection. One owner had tested positive for the virus. No human in the other cat’s household tested positive.
Other cats have tested positive for the virus, SARS-CoV-2, including a pet in Belgium and a tiger at the Bronx zoo. After the tiger who showed mild symptoms tested positive, the zoo collected fecal samples from other big cats and found that a total of five tigers and three lions had been infected. One of the tigers didn’t show any symptoms. All of the big cats are doing well, the zoo reported Wednesday.
In an experiment in China, cats were shown to be susceptible to infection with the coronavirus, showing mild symptoms. The researchers said the experiment also showed that cats could pass the virus to other cats. But that was in a laboratory setting. The virus was detected by tests done after the cats had been euthanized. The researchers noted in the paper, “It was difficult to perform regular nasal wash collection on the sub-adult cats because they were aggressive.”
The Agriculture Department and the C.D.C. emphasized that “there is no evidence that pets play a role in spreading the virus in the United States.” Other experts agree that people should not start looking at their cats with suspicion. If anything, it’s the other way around.
Karen Terio, the chief of the Zoological Pathology Program at University of Illinois’s veterinary college, where the Bronx Zoo tiger sample was tested, noted that hundreds of thousands of people have tested positive in the United States, as opposed to two cats.
Dr. Terio said that while the tests and the earlier experiments did show that cats appear to be somewhat susceptible to the virus, “If this was going to be a serious problem for cats, we would have seen greater numbers.” Either very few cats are being infected, or their symptoms are so mild that their owners don’t notice them or think they warrant a trip to the vet. The direction of infection “is not going to be cat to human,” she said. “It’s going to be us to our pets. Thankfully, they’re having very mild disease.”
For now, the C.D.C. recommends keeping cats indoors to prevent them from contact with other animals or people. And for people who become sick, they recommend, as they have in the past, isolating from pets as much as possible, treating them as you would a human being in your family.
Dogs are less susceptible to infection with the virus, according to the same research paper on cats. Although there is some evidence that they may have low-level infections, they haven’t shown any symptoms. Nonetheless, the C.D.C. recommends that you put dogs on a six-foot leash when walking them, keep them away from other animals and avoid contact as much as possible with any pets if you are sick. The American Veterinary Medical Association has the same advice, which did not change with the new announcement.
The Agriculture Department will post any confirmed tests of animals with SARS-CoV-2 on its website. It does not recommend routine testing for pets.