British Columbia

Volunteer cats from COVID households wanted for new study

Can you give your feline companion COVID-19? And conversely, can Fluffy give it to you?

BCCDC's new COVID-19 and Cats project investigating possible viral links between humans and household cats

Cats that are too stressed by the testing process won't be sampled. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Can you give your feline companion COVID-19?

And, conversely, can Fluffy transmit it to you?

Those are the big questions a small project by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control is hoping to answer in its just launched COVID-19 and Cats pilot study.

To help in the effort, the BCCDC is looking to wrangle 40 cats from volunteer homes with COVID-19 positive humans.

"We started thinking about this project back in the spring when we first started hearing indications that pets were getting infected with COVID at a very low level," said principal investigator and Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Erin Fraser. 

"And we started to think about how little we actually knew about what this infection could look like in domestic pets."

Participant households must be in the Lower Mainland and need at least one person diagnosed with COVID-19 in the previous seven days and have one or more cats.

If all criteria are met, a vet and technician sampling team will conduct two, no-contact visits 10 days apart to gently collect nasal, rectal and blood samples from kitty. 

Maci, a four-year-old poodle-bichon mix, was the first dog in Canada to test positive for COVID-19. (Submitted by Tanja Loeb)

"Our sampling team doesn't go into the household," said Fraser. "We ask that they put that cat in a carrier that we either provide or the one they have. There's a tent outside the residence that's secured — the cat can't get away and it's private as well."

'Not all cats will be amenable'

The sampling crew uses the calming pheromone spray Feliway, but if the cat isn't comfortable, the team will not force the issue.

"Not all cats will be amenable," said Fraser. "Our team is very experienced ... but if they're too stressed, we just won't proceed with the sampling."

Data from the BCCDC study and a parallel one being conducted in Quebec will inform researchers if they need to look more closely into whether household pets can act as a vector for COVID19.

Reports of animals infected with COVID-19 have been few and far between.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive one year ago and is believed to have been infected by one of its handlers. 

And in October 2020, an Ontario dog living with four COVID-19 patients became the first canine in Canada to test positive for the virus.

Scott Weese, chief of infection control at the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College, called the dog an "innocent bystander."

"They get infected by us ... and the odds of that going any further beyond that dog, I think, are very low," he said.

Cats have been known to contract COVID-19 from humans, but there have been no confirmed cases of cat-to-human transmission, according to Fraser. (Stephen Morrison)

According to Fraser, there's been no known cases of a cat transmitting the virus to a human.

However, cats that contract COVID-19 are similar to people in how they react to the infection.

"They can develop symptoms but they can also be asymptomatic from what we understand. But we don't know a lot and that's why we are doing this study," she said.

Fraser hopes to have the cat sampling done by the end of May.

The BCCDC study is being done in conjunction with an identical study in Quebec. Fraser said the findings will inform the direction of future research and possibly new public policy. 

"We're basing a lot of our current guidelines off of human health guidelines. So we want to make sure that those are appropriate for cats," she said.

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