Two pet cats in New York state have tested positive for the coronavirus, marking the first confirmed cases in companion animals in the US, federal officials said.
The cats, which had mild respiratory illnesses and are expected to recover, are thought to have contracted the virus from people in their households or neighbourhoods, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The finding, which comes after positive tests in some tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo, adds to a small number of confirmed cases of the virus in animals worldwide.
US authorities say while it appears some animals can catch the virus from people, there is no indication pets are transmitting it to human beings.
“We don’t want people to panic. We don’t want people to be afraid of pets” or to rush to test them en masse, said Dr Casey Barton Behravesh, a CDC official who works on human-animal health connections.
“There’s no evidence that pets are playing a role in spreading this disease to people.”
Still, the CDC is recommending people prevent their pets from interacting with people or animals outside their homes – by keeping cats indoors and dogs out of dog parks, for instance.
Coronavirus testing for pets is not recommended unless an animal has been exposed to a person with Covid-19 and the animal has symptoms of the disease — and tests have ruled out more common possible causes, said Dr Jane Rooney of the USDA.
Barton Behravesh said the animal tests are done at veterinary labs and use different chemicals than human tests, which have been in short supply during the crisis.
Scientists studying the virus have been looking closely at links between human and animals. While a consensus is still evolving, the leading theory is that infection among humans began at an animal market in China, probably from an animal that got the virus from a bat.
Scientists are working to understand the potential for transmission to animals in homes, farms and elsewhere. So far, it does not appear that livestock or poultry are susceptible, Dr Rooney said.
The USDA and CDC have recommended pet owners with Covid-19 avoid petting, snuggling or other contact with their animals as much as possible, including wearing a face covering while caring for them.
There have been a handful of reports outside the U.S. of pet dogs or cats becoming infected after close contact with contagious people, including a Hong Kong dog that tested positive for a low level of the pathogen in February and early March. Hong Kong agriculture authorities concluded pet dogs and cats could not pass the virus to human beings but could test positive if exposed by their owners.
A tiger at the Bronx Zoo had what was believed to be the first confirmed coronavirus case in an animal in the U.S. or a tiger anywhere. The four-year-old Malayan tiger, named Nadia, was tested after starting to showing signs of illness on March 27, 11 days after the zoo closed to the public because of the virus.
Three other tigers and three lions later showed symptoms. Tests subsequently confirmed they all had the virus, as did another tiger that shares their exhibit but did not show any signs of illness, the zoo said Wednesday.