With the current outbreak of a new coronavirus that originated in China, there has been a lot of concern worldwide over viruses passing from animals to humans and vise versa. With regard to this new coronavirus and cats, there is no evidence our feline companions can be infected.
The feline coronavirus that you have heard about is NOT the same coronavirus infecting tens of thousands of people.
There ARE some coronaviruses that infect cats, which I will discuss in detail here. But the new Chinese coronavirus does NOT infect cats.
Incidentally, the new virus is now named SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). It has been named this because of its similarities to the original SARS virus that caused concern in 2002.
Just like the original SARS and MERS viral outbreaks, they believe this coronavirus strain originated in bats as well and then passed to a different animal, which then passed to a human. The official illness the new coronavirus causes is COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease).
But let’s talk about coronavirus and cats, shall we?
Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian and this does not constitute veterinary advice. Please speak to your vet about any concerns you have about your pet or cat colony.
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What is Coronavirus?
The coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause mild symptoms like the common cold or gastrointestinal issues up to much more severe respiratory symptoms like we’re currently seeing in China. Coronaviruses are common in many species of animals, including cats, bats, cattle, birds, and humans.
It’s rare, but sometimes coronaviruses can be zoonotic, which means that they can be transmitted from animals or insects to people. Parasites, bacteria, and viruses can all be zoonotic. You can catch roundworms or hookworms from the ingestion of your infected pet’s feces, for example.
Four of the most common human coronaviruses did not jump from animals to people. Humans are their natural hosts. Most viruses are not zoonotic, but the severe diseases that originate in animals often hit the news a lot more frequently. That causes a lot of concern.
It could be that there are a ton of viruses we catch from animals and pets all the time, we simply don’t get sick or end up with such mild symptoms there is no need for medical care. Or it could be the viruses can’t attach to our cells as well because of the proteins of each virus. No one actually knows.
With the health scare over another deadly respiratory illness caused by animals, it’s really important to point this out, because sometimes animals pay the price for human fear.
The coronaviruses SARS, MERS, and the new SARS-CoV-2 all appear to have originated in bats, incidentally.
In general, coronaviruses are usually spread by respiratory droplets from sneezing or coughing, either directly onto another person or by indirect contact such as handshakes. The coronavirus does not usually survive long outside of its host, a few hours at most on surfaces. (I should point out they do not yet know how long the new coronavirus can last outside of a host yet.) Direct contact with an infected person or animal is the usual transmission method.
Most people will have been infected by one or more of the common human coronaviruses in their lifetime.
Let’s discuss the feline coronavirus, without getting too scientific on you. I’m sure none of you are that interested in the species, subspecies, types and strain designations.
Our beloved cat companions have a coronavirus that is prevalent worldwide. Both domestic cats and their wild cat cousins (such as mountain lions and cheetahs) can contract the feline coronavirus.
The feline coronavirus is most prevalent in multicat households, breeding catteries, and shelters. It occurs LESS often in feral and community cat populations.
The feline coronavirus is in the same subspecies as the canine coronavirus and the porcine (pig) coronavirus. There are two different types of feline coronaviruses. There are also many different strains of each type of coronavirus. None of these types or strains of cat coronaviruses are zoonotic. This means you cannot catch them from your cats.
The feline coronavirus also attacks the gastrointestinal tract, not the respiratory tract as with the SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses that infect humans. Cats have a different set of viruses that attack the respiratory system.
Oddly enough, kittens born to mothers who are infected with the feline coronavirus are protected from infection until they are weaned but it is not known if it is the antibodies in a mother’s milk or some other reason.
There is a vaccine for the feline coronavirus, but it is not recommended by most veterinarians as it is pretty useless and has not been proven effective.
There are two different forms of the feline coronavirus: FEC and FIPV.
Feline Enteric Coronavirus (FEC) infected cats can have mild gastrointestinal symptoms or even no symptoms. Feline Infectious Peritonitis Virus (FIPV) which is a mutated form of FEC, can be fatal, however.
Feline Enteric Coronavirus
Feline Enteric Coronavirus infects a cat’s intestines. It usually causes no symptoms or mild diarrhea in infected cats and kittens. Cats who live in large groups are most commonly infected, such as cats who live in catteries or animal shelters. Cats who live in feral and community cat colonies are actually LESS likely to be infected.
It is shed in a cat’s feces and can be transmitted to a non-infected cat by ingesting fecal matter. This is a common occurrence as cats groom themselves with their tongues and often share litter boxes. This is also why the feline coronavirus and FIP is not prevalent in feral cat colonies as free-roaming cats rarely share a ‘bathroom’.
There are laboratory tests that can determine if a cat is infected with FEC.
Some cats resist infection completely. Some cats become carriers, thus shedding the virus in his or her feces for life. Yet some cats end up making a full recovery and others end up chronically infected for life!
Lastly, in a very small percentage of cats, the coronavirus itself mutates after infection.
Feline Infectious Peritonitis Virus
Feline Infectious Peritonitis Virus (FIPV) is the mutated feline coronavirus that can occur in less than 5% of cats in multicat households, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. This rate of mutation is even lower in single cat homes. The illness this virus causes is called Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). The mutation causes the virus to start targeting macrophages, a type of white blood cell.
FIP is a lethal disease, but there is now hope. There have been promising new treatments being studied for FIP. The most recent study testing an antiviral medication had 25 of 31 cats survive. However, it has not yet been approved by the FDA for a very complicated reason, according to DVM360.
A large group of cats living together has a much higher risk of the coronavirus mutating into FIPV. Overcrowding is a major risk factor for contracting FIP. It has also been shown to be more common in immunosuppressed cats, such as the very young or very old, cats with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) or Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV), and stressed cats.
Did you know, over 70% of FIP cases occur in purebred cats, according to Wikipedia? This is largely because of the prevalence of FECV in breeding catteries. This is why all responsible breeding catteries will test for the feline coronavirus in both parents before breeding and often the kittens themselves before purchase. Some breeds like the Abyssinian and Bengal are much more prone to FIP than say, the Siamese.
FYI, of the wild cats who contract the feline coronavirus, cheetahs are the ones most likely to develop FIP.
The development of FIP depends on two factors. First, is the mutation of FECV into FIPV. The second factor is the immune system.
Cats who have developed FIP will continue to shed the non-mutated form of the feline coronavirus, although the viral load appears to decrease.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, they used to call the different FIP symptoms by differing forms. They used to refer to the effusive form (wet) and non-effusive form (dry) or a combination of both. It has been determined that differentiation of these forms is not useful, except when using a diagnostic approach. There is nearly always effusion to some degree in FIP and each form can turn into the other form.
Of all FIP cases, 60-70% are effusive FIP, according to Wikipedia.
Effusive FIP Symptoms (Wet Form)
- Fluid accumulating in the chest or abdomen that can cause difficulty breathing
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
Non-effusive FIP Symptoms (Dry Form)
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Possible blindness or ocular lesions
- Neurological issues, seizures, difficulty walking, standing, and may become basically paralyzed over time.
(But no accumulation of fluid!)
This is not a comprehensive list of symptoms as so many things can occur with FIP, including hydrocephalus, skin lesions, and so much more. The symptoms I listed are the most common visible signs.
Diagnosis and Treatment
The feline coronavirus can only be diagnosed by your veterinarian, who may run tests. Always seek out your veterinarian for your cats if you have any concerns, especially if you suspect FIP.
There IS no real, effective treatment for feline coronavirus or its mutated friend, feline infectious peritonitis available.
For the non-mutated virus, it usually leaves the cat with little to no symptoms at all. In kittens or young cats, diarrhea may be present, as well as perhaps some vomiting. So any treatment would be symptomatic, like an anti-diarrhea medicine for cats or fluids.
You could try a probiotic, like Fortiflora, to help a cat’s digestive system and give the cat’s immune system a boost, if you want, but there is no evidence it helps with feline coronavirus infection.
As for the fatal form, FIP, there are many clinical trials testing antiviral medication, with only one of them I could find showing any promise. This antiviral medication is not yet available commercially.
Other treatment options for FIP include corticosteroids or prednisolone, or similar medications. Both of which you would need to get from your veterinarian.
Coronavirus and Cats
To rephrase: there is no evidence the new human coronavirus is infectious to cats. Cats have their own coronavirus, which is usually mild but does not infect people.
Feline coronavirus has a mutated form that is fatal, however, and causes Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) in cats. Please talk to your veterinarian if you have concerns about FIP.
But neither coronavirus is zoonotic. Your cat is safe and you are safe from your cat!
Any questions? Comments? Advice? Leave them below!