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.
The feline coronavirus that you have heard about is NOT the same coronavirus infecting millions of people worldwide.
As of April 28, 2020, there were two cats and a bunch of tigers and lions who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the United States. A few other pets have tested positive in other countries. So what does that mean for our feline friends?
With regard to this new coronavirus and cats, there is no evidence our feline companions can infect humans. Cats, however, can be infected after prolonged contact with infected owners. There is no evidence that our pets can infect humans or play a role in spreading the disease.
The CDC recommends people who become sick avoid contact with their pets. They also recommend practicing social distancing with your pets as well, just in case. This means keeping your cats indoors and only take your dogs for walks on leashes, avoiding other animals and people.
For up-to-date, animal infection data, please visit the CDC’s page.
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).
Please visit the CDC website for all of the most recent updates regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
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 are 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.
Related: Lysine and Cats: Why it is Not Recommended
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!
14 thoughts on “Coronavirus and Cats (Facts, Not Rumors)”
Hay thanks so much for this timely post. it certainly is a most worrying subject and the more clarity that can be brought to gaining at least some understanding of the disease and how it is spread the better.
I don’t have a cat but nevertheless your excellent explanation held my attention as here in NZ we have many feral cats in urban and suburban areas.
The information you have provided here is hugely useful and extremely well written. Thanks so much for taking the time to create this post and to demystify some of the urban myth around the feline variety v the human variety that is causing such angst and tragedy currently.
Luckily, feral cats rarely spread the feline coronavirus and even if they did, you’re completely safe! Thanks for visiting!
Thanks for the info, I have several feral cats I take care of outside my home and one indoor ferret and was very concered about the risk. Thank You again for the info!
Thanks so much for visiting! Though I have no idea about ferrets, I’m glad the cat information was helpful!
Wow, you REALLY know your stuff. I can’t believe you’re not a vet! I had no idea there was a feline coronavirus. It’s pretty scary how viruses can mutate so quickly and in such deadly ways. Very glad to hear the feline coronaviruses are not zoonotic. That would really get people in even more of a panic!
Thanks so much! People are all concerned about new viruses coming from animals lately, so it’s always best to be informed.
Than you for your post. It is a timely article for me. Nowadays, the news about coronavirus is everywhere and sometimes it is confusing and scary.
You give a clear description on feline coronaviruses. I now know that not all coronaviruses are dangerous. Right now, only the COVID-19 is the one spreading around the world and results in severe illness. I wish the epidemics would stop. Otherwise, I am afraid of going anywhere, since I have no guarantee that a deadly virus may not enter my body.
This is useful knowledge for us to understand coronaviruses and to help prevent us from infections.
Thank you so much!
It is good to know that the chances of becoming sick by being around cats are low. I love cats and I would not want them to be falsely accused and persecuted for spreading an illness they are not in fact doing. As for actual cat coronavirus, knowing the facts of how it is spread lets me know how to protect my one and own fur baby. I did not know that the more loving a couple of adult cats are to each other the higher the risk is. It is sad for them. Some cat breeds like the Siamese enjoy company from other felines. I hope there are more efficient treatments for infected cats in the future.
Thanks for commenting!
Actually, it isn’t the more loving the cat is that increases the risk. Sharing a litter box and living in a multiple cat household increases the risk because they ingest feces through self-grooming after using the litter box, although yes, grooming each other can spread it as well.
I’ve been very relieved because I know at least my pet snails can’t be infected with the coronavirus. ^^ I wasn’t sure about cats and dogs, so I’m happy to hear cats can’t be infected with the human coronavirus either, and cats can’t infect humans.
Somehow, it comforts me to know at least our animal friends are safe from the corona pandemic, which is affecting people all over the world. Is the feline coronavirus still common? At least it’s not a pandemic like the human coronavirus, right?
I’m glad your snails can’t carry the novel coronavirus! People all over the world are just scared, and there have been instances of people abandoning or surrendering their pets based on the fear they will give them COVID-19.
As for the feline coronaviruses, they are very common still, especially in multi-cat homes, shelters and breeding batteries. Luckily, 95% of the cats infected with the feline coronavirus have little or mild symptoms. It is only when it mutates to cause FIP that it is deadly. Coronaviruses and other RNA viruses are prone to mutation. DNA viruses, like chickenpox or measles, are a virus that if you get them once, you will never again get that disease as your body now has an immunity to it. That’s why colds, which is another type of coronavirus, happen all the time and people get colds many times through their lifetimes. It’s not just one particular virus, it’s many viruses, and they’re mutating all the time. Not fun. That’s the biggest fear with this novel coronavirus, that it mutates to become even worse.
Thanks for visiting! ^_^
Hi, I don’t know if you heard about the tiger getting infected from it’s keeper at the zoo, but the same coronavirus that infects humans is infecting animals too. Some animals transmit it and others don’t. In China they have researched it and it turns out most animals don’t transmit it to each other. They tested a variety of animals including ducks, pigs and of course cats and dogs. One animal they found that does transmit it is cats. They had three infected cats and put each one in near isolation but next to a cage with one other non-infected cat. In each case the non-infected cat caught the disease from the infected cat, even though there was no physical contact, showing that they catch it from respiratory droplets the same as humans. Very sad, but cats can catch the virus from humans and cats can also spread it. There is an article from nature here, but note it was written before the zoo keeper passed it on to his tigers! https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00984-8
I was aware of the tigers, but have yet to update my article yet. As of the writing of my article, only ONE cat was actually infected and showed symptoms. One after how many hundreds of thousands of people catching it? They did an experiment with regards to infecting cats, yes, but it does not indicate they 1.) spread it, OR 2.) reflect reality. In the article you mention, it specifically states, “The results are based on lab experiments in which a small number of animals were deliberately given high doses of the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and do not represent real-life interactions between people and their pets.” There is also no evidence, even in that experiment, that cats will spread it to humans.
With regard to Tigers, that also doesn’t indicate that domestic felines are susceptible. At the time of this comment, only 2 dogs and one cat have been naturally infected with the virus from prolonged contact with owners. And 7 tigers after contact with a zookeeper who was infected. Tigers may be felines, but they are not exactly like domestic felines, so is not evidence that cats can spread the coronavirus at all.
In fact, as of this comment, there STILL has not been evidence that cats have spread coronavirus to any person. Cat-to-cat transmission is kind of a moot point as most pet cats who could contract the novel coronavirus, live indoors with their owners and not likely to spread it to the rest of the pet cat population.