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Cats and COVID-19: What pet owners need to know

Beth Adams/WXXI News

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that two pet cats in New York state tested positive for COVID-19.

So far, it appears that cats and ferrets are the domestic species most likely to get the novel coronavirus.

"Dogs can be infected, although they appear to be much less susceptible to infection, and they generally don't show signs of disease like cats do," said Dr. Bruce Kornreich, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center.

He says the infected cats -- two that were tested in two different parts of New York state and one in Belgium -- did not get severely ill, and are recovering nicely.

They primarily had respiratory symptoms and fever. The cat in Belgium also reportedly had gastrointestinal problems.

While public health authorities are still learning about COVID-19, the CDC says there is no evidence that pets spread the virus to people, but because it is believed that people can pass the virus to some animals, Kornreich says cat owners who suspect or know they have COVID-19 should avoid close contact with their pet as much as possible.

Sending the animal to a temporary foster home is not recommended, though.

"Rehoming can expose other cats, in theory, to infection," he said. "Cats can get stressed and they may increase the likelihood of infection, although we don't know that for sure. The other thing to consider is just the act of doing a transfer might expose other people to a sick person."

The CDC is not recommending routine testing for pets at this time.

Kornreich described what pet owners should look for in terms of respiratory symptoms in their cats that should be reported to a veterinarian.

"Breathing more rapidly than it should be," he explained, "and also effort; if you really see dramatic changes in the volume of the chest, if the cat looks like they're working very hard to breathe, that would be another sign."

Respiratory illness in cats can also be a sign of asthma, cancer, or other illnesses, and Kornreich said a veterinarian would likely try to rule those out before considering the possibility that a cat was infected with the coronavirus.

In New York, he said, coronavirus testing for pets must be approved by state veterinarian and public health authorities.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.