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Coronavirus in Cats: How it’s Different from COVID-19

03/17/2020 by Sarah Wallace DVM
March 17th, 2020 by Sarah Wallace DVM

Feline Coronavirus is Not the Same as COVID-19

Think of coronavirus as a surname or family name. In general, your family shares a last name, but each individual within that family is their own unique person with their own job, likes and dislikes and personality. Coronavirus is a family of viruses, each member of that family acts a little different and has a specific host species they infect.

While COVID-19 can infect humans, hundreds of samples taken from dogs and cats and analyzed at Idexx, the largest veterinary diagnostic laboratory in the country, have found no evidence of COVID-19 causing infection in pets. Humans have several coronaviruses that can infect them. Dogs have their own coronavirus called Canine Coronavirus. Cats also have their own Coronavirus – the Feline Coronavirus. Both canine and feline coronaviruses stay within their own species and do not infect humans. 

What is Feline Coronavirus? How Common is it?

Feline Coronavirus is a common virus in cats. What is a virus? It is a microscopic parasite that does not have cells, or organs – all it has is genetic material inside. Coronaviruses have RNA genetic material inside them. When the coronavirus affects host cells, the RNA is inserted into a cell and acts as blueprints that direct the host cell to make new viruses.

In cats, the cells that are affected belong to the GI tract and/or the respiratory tract. A cat will become infected with the virus by fecal-oral transmission (a particle of feces is groomed off of an infected cat, as an example), aerosol transmission (being breathed on, sneezed on or coughed on) or by exposure of the eyes, nose or mouth to the virus through fomites (foh-mites). 

Fomites are objects or humans that have gotten virus on them, but are not infected with the virus. Examples include litter boxes, cat toys, cat beds, or the people who care for the cat. When a cat has feline coronavirus affecting their respiratory tract, sneezing, coughing or breathing on or near objects makes those objects (fomites) into places for virus to lay in wait to infect another host cat.

Cats infected with feline coronavirus in the GI may get fecal particles (feces) onto any of the same objects, allowing for spread of the virus to other cats. Feline Coronavirus is more commonly found in multi-cat households and catteries where the cats in close contact can easily infect each other. 

Feline Coronavirus Symptoms and Diagnosis

Feline Coronavirus causes relatively minor diarrhea and/or respiratory signs (coughing, sneezing) that are mostly indistinguishable from other minor infectious conditions in cats. 

If your cat develops minor diarrhea, a PCR fecal panel performed with your veterinarian can help you to diagnose the cause as feline coronavirus versus many of the other viruses and bacteria that cause diarrhea.  If your cat suffers from upper respiratory infections, feline coronavirus may be one of the several infectious organisms contributing to that infection. 

Once infected with the virus, cats will start to “shed” the virus within 1 week of getting infected.  Think of the term “shed” like a dog or cat sheds fur – basically the virus is waiting on fomites, ready to be spread to other hosts (cats) or objects and surfaces the infected cat comes into contact with. Cats can shed the virus – and therefore can cause illness in others – for months to years after they are infected. 

How is Feline Coronavirus Treated?

If your cat experiences mild GI signs or mild respiratory signs, they are unlikely to require treatment. If treatment is pursued for an individual patient needing extra care, the treatments will be aimed at supporting the cat’s hydration and normal body functions and not specifically aimed at killing the virus. Specific feline coronavirus therapies do not exist at this time. It is uncommon for feline coronavirus infection to result in death.

Feline Infectious Peritonitis

Less than 1% of the cats infected with feline coronavirus develop a condition called Feline Infectious Peritonitis. This is a more severe condition that does not pass to other cats, dogs or humans. FIP is most commonly seen in cats less than 18 months of age and in cats older than 12. Cats may develop a fever that comes and goes and is unresponsive to antibiotics. They may also have low energy, unexplained weight loss and/or a failure to grow. Some FIP cats will develop an accumulation of fluid in their chest or abdomen.

Purebred cats are more susceptible to developing FIP – so adopt from a shelter instead of buying from a breeder whenever possible. FIP is a very difficult condition to diagnose, and up until recently, was nearly 100% fatal. Recent developments in treatments for this condition are showing promise and may be available to veterinarians in the near future. 

Can Humans Get Feline Coronavirus?

No! Humans can not be infected with feline coronavirus.