When an infectious person strokes a cat, there is a possibility that viral particles may be left on its fur. The question is whether the cat could then spread the virus to the next person who strokes it or to another cat.
Studies testing various materials have shown this virus survives best on smooth surfaces. As animal coats have not been tested, it is not known how long the virus could remain viable on the porous and fibrous fur of a cat or on the hair of a dog.
“The spread from you to the cat, and potentially to another person, could be the same if you had touched a door handle or a shopping trolley. Rather than having the diseases, the cat could be a transmitter, it could be fomite.”
In the medical literature, objects or materials which are likely to carry infection, such as clothes, utensils, and furniture are known as fomites.
Dr Crawford also cautions that neighbours or strangers may turn against cats roaming outdoors.
Most of the discussion about pets has centred on whether they can actually contract the virus and then infect humans or other pets, not on whether they are fomites.
To date, only two dogs and two cats abroad have contracted the virus from humans and there are no known cases of pets infecting humans.
There are also no known cases of infected pets in Australia, but there is sufficient concern for people to be advised to exercise caution.
Dr Crawford says people who are ill or at high risk should treat their pets as they treat other members of the family to protect them from becoming infected.
Her association also recommends its members wear personal protective equipment when handling cats whose owners have the disease. Cats are believed to be more susceptible than dogs.
Australia’s Department of Agriculture also advises people with the disease to avoid or minimise close contact with companion animals, including face-to-face contact, sharing food and close sleeping arrangements.
It recommends preparing a plan, including alternative arrangements for the care of animals, should the owner become ill or need to self-isolate.
And Wildlife Health Australia advises that vulnerable people avoid contact with wildlife. While there is no evidence of the virus in Australian wildlife, it says it is safest to assume any mammal wildlife species may be infected through close exposure to an infected human.
Experts working on the intersection between animals and people point out that COVID-19 data is scarce, research is preliminary and some of the studies are yet to be peer reviewed.
What is known is that primates and ferrets are particularly susceptible to the virus. Ferrets are allowed as pets in some Australian states but primates are not.
On the conventional pet front, last month two dogs in Hong Kong tested positive to the virus following close exposure to their sick owners.
The dogs, a German Shepherd and a Pomeranian, showed no clinical signs of disease, although one developed antibodies, indicating it had been in contact with the virus and become immune.
In contrast, late last month a cat in Belgium, which tested positive after close daily contact with its ill owner, developed diarrhoea, vomiting and breathing difficulties. The virus was found in the cat’s faeces.
The other cat tested positive in Hong Kong and did not become sick.
One study has shown cats can infect each another in the laboratory. Another has shown cats became infected during the Wuhan outbreak.
But then, when 4000 canine, feline and equine specimens from the US and Korea were screened in a laboratory, all results were negative.
Another study tested 17 dogs and eight cats from households with confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong and found no positive cases other than the two dogs.
Then, early this month, some tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo in the US showed signs of respiratory illness. They had a dry cough and some loss of appetite but were not severely affected.
Only Nadia, a four-year-old Malayan tiger, was anaesthetised and tested. She was positive, and believed to have been infected by her keeper, who had no symptoms but was infectious.
So far, there is no known threat to birds and livestock.
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