Cats, ferrets may be reservoir for SARS

Domestic cats, ferrets can be infected with SARS virus, scientists say.

Scientists have added pet cats and ferrets to the list of animals that can harbour the SARS coronavirus.

In laboratory experiments, researchers found domestic cats and ferrets can be infected with SARS taken from a human patient.

The animals transmitted the virus to uninfected animals housed with them, but scientists don't know if they can give it to people.

Dr. Klaus Stohr, the World Health Organization's chief SARS scientist, doubts domestic animals play a major role in spreading severe acute respiratory syndrome to humans.

Prof. Albert Osterhaus, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, found the animals can harbour the virus while he was testing potential drugs for SARS.

Osterhaus and his team reported the infected cats showed no clinical symptoms beyond a mild case of pneumonia. The ferrets became lethargic, and one died four days later.

In the study appearing in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, researchers say they inoculated six cats and six ferrets by putting drops containing the virus into the animals' trachea, eyes and nose.

Throat secretions showed signs of the infection, and the cats and ferrets produced antibodies within 28 days, the researchers said.

Potential drug testing model

The animals were later euthanized. Post-mortem tests showed the virus was in their respiratory tract. 

Since the ferrets showed similar changes in their lungs to macaques infected with the SARS virus, Osterhaus says the domestic animals may be useful to test drugs and potential vaccines.

Virology experts say the study tested too few animals to conclusively say how cats and ferrets become infected.

Scientists don't know the origin of SARS, which killed 774 people.

In China, where the first outbreak began, exotic raccoon dogs, ferret badgers and civets were all found to be a reservoir for a SARS-like germ. The animals are considered a delicacy in China.

The WHO's representative in Beijing said markets took the animals off the shelves, but some have begun selling them again.