Volunteer cats from COVID households wished for brand new research

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Can you give COVID-19 to your cat companion?

And can Fluffy convey it to you the other way around?

These are the big questions that a small BC Center for Disease Control project is trying to answer in its just-launched COVID-19 and Cats pilot study.

To support the effort, the BCCDC is trying to quarrel 40 cats from volunteer homes with COVID-19 positive people.

“We were thinking about this project back in the spring when we first heard signs that pets were being infected with COVID at very low levels,” said senior public health investigator and veterinarian Dr. Erin Fraser.

“And we started to think about how little we actually knew about what this infection might look like in pets.”

Participating households must be on the lower mainland and must have at least one person diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past seven days and have one or more cats.

If all criteria are met, a veterinarian and technician sampling team will conduct two non-contact visits every 10 days to gently collect nasal, rectal and blood samples from kittens.

Cats that are too stressed by the testing process will not be sampled. (Colin Butler / CBC News)

“Our rehearsal team doesn’t do the housekeeping,” said Fraser. “We ask you to put this cat in a carrier that we either provide or that you have. There is a tent in front of the residence that is secured – the cat cannot escape and it is also private.”

“Not all cats will be accessible”

The sampling crew uses the soothing pheromone spray Feliway, but if the cat is not feeling well, the team won’t force the problem.

“Not all cats will be accessible,” said Fraser. “Our team is very experienced … but if they are too stressed we just won’t continue sampling.”

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

There have been few reports of animals infected with COVID-19.

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

And in October 2020, a dog from Ontario who lived with four COVID-19 patients became the first dog in Canada to test positive for the virus.

Scott Weese, chief of infection control at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, described the dog as an “innocent bystander”.

“They’ll get infected by us … and the chances of that going beyond this dog are very slim in my opinion,” he said.

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

Fraser says there are no known cases of a cat transmitting the virus to a human.

However, cats infected with COVID-19 resemble humans in their response to the infection.

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

“They can develop symptoms, but they can also be asymptomatic, which we understand. But we don’t know a lot and that’s why we’re doing this study,” she said.

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

The BCCDC study is being conducted in conjunction with an identical study in Quebec. Fraser said the results would guide the direction of future research and possibly new public policy.

“We base many of our current guidelines on human health guidelines, so we want to make sure they are safe for cats,” she said.