Coronavirus in Cats This article is verified by a vet

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Written by Franziska Gütgemann, vet
coronavirus in cats

Coronaviruses don't just affect us pet owners, but our furry friends too. In contrast to the new type of coronavirus affecting humans, feline coronavirus (FcoV) has already been known for several years. These include feline enteric coronavirus (FECV) and the much better-known feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIPV). The latter causes fatal feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), which leads to peritonitis and abdominal dropsy. On the other hand, people suffer from flu-like symptoms, especially those with weakened immune systems like elderly or sick people.

Is Covid-19 dangerous for my cat?

The first cases of the new infectious disease Covid-19 affecting humans were declared in China at the end of 2019. There are currently thousands suffering from this disease worldwide and there has still not been a clear explanation as to where the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 originated from. According to the current state of science, however, the respiratory disease has been transmitted to humans by bats, pangolins or snakes. The federal research institute for animal health (Friedrich Löffler Institute, FLI) categorises transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to cats or vice versa as unlikely. Covid-19 isn't said to represent any health risks to dogs and other animals like pigs or chickens, although there was a positive test on a dog in Hong Kong after examining its nose and mouth. However, the coronavirus has to be detected in the body for a real infection, which is why it is assumed that there was a superficial contamination through close physical contact with infected humans. Nevertheless, it's recommended to adhere to hygiene measures in contact with pets.

Although a cat was diagnosed with Covid-19, showing symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and respiratory issues after being infected by its owner, experts insist that this was a rare case. The cat has recovered after 9 days, but is still being observed by vets.

It is still not clear how dangerous Covid-19 is for cats, whereas the long-known feline coronaviruses (FcoV) which are related to Covid-19 can be very dangerous. The following article will outline which coronaviruses this includes, what symptoms emerge and how cats can be protected from them.

Should I still let my cat outside?

Currently, there is no evidence that cats can transmit the coronavirus to humans. If your cat is well, they can still leave the house and explore the surroundings. It is still advisable to be cautious when handling pets, paying attention to washing hands after touching them and cleaning their food/water bowls and litter boxes.

Coronavirus in Cats - Spread and Characteristics

Coronaviruses affecting cats include feline enteric coronavirus (FECV) and the resulting feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIPV). The two viruses can then be further split into two different types (serotype I and II), which differ in terms of characteristics.

Feline Enteric Coronavirus (FECV)

This virus is widespread amongst cats, with breeds of cats affected particularly often. Cats can become infected through direct and indirect contact from secretion from the respiratory tract, contaminated faeces and urine. For instance, cats can get infected from contaminated food bowls, litter boxes or during play. The virus enters the gastrointestinal tract via the mouth and first multiplies, then infects regional lymph nodes and macrophages in the immune system.

Feline Infectious Peritonitis Virus (FIPV)

Whilst feline enteric coronavirus (FECV) is widespread, infections caused by feline infectious peritonitis virus are much rarer in cats. This is because the virus is transmitted neither by direct nor indirect contact. It occurs through random mutations of feline enteric coronavirus (FECV) in the phagocytes, meaning that potentially every cat infected with FECV can carry the feline infectious peritonitis virus. However, an infection doesn't always mean that signs of illness inevitably occur. Only around 5 to 10% of affected cats get sick from feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), with a large number of such cats just one year of age. Factors caused by a weakened immune system such as other infections (e.g. FeLV, FIV) play a big role.

If the infected phagocytes reach the bloodstream, the virus spreads in the whole body and causes major damage, which depends on the respective form of progression:

  • The wet form (also effusive or serous) of FIP causes inflammations of serous areas of skin that line the organs of the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavity. The name of this form comes from the massive production of a yellow-brown secretion that starts in the course of what is known as polyserositis.
  • The dry, granulomatous or non-effusive form leads to papule-like inflammations (granuloma) found in the liver, spleen, pancreas and lymph nodes.

Symptoms of coronavirus in cats: what clinical signs do infected cats show?

The first signs of illness following infection from the feline infectious peritonitis virus can show after just a few days or only several months later.

Since many organs like the kidneys, liver or CNS are damaged, the picture of FIP is very varied. Depending on the form of progression, the following symptoms can be observed:

  • General symptoms: recurring fever, debility and tiredness
  • Changes in behaviour like sudden aggression or fear
  • Movement disorders like partial paralysis (paresis) or coordination problems (ataxias)
  • Yellow mucous membranes (jaundice, e.g. in the mouth) and obfuscating eye diseases
  • Emaciation with simultaneous increase of the abdominal girth (due to abdominal dropsy) as well as resulting respiratory difficulties

Whilst FIP in cats leads to death within a few weeks, feline enteric coronavirus thankfully just causes mild bowel inflammations with diarrhoea and fever.

How is coronavirus recognised in cats?

If your cat is sleeping more at the moment or is showing symptoms affecting the central nervous system or other serious symptoms, they should be checked by a vet.

If the anamnesis and general clinical examination indicate that your cat is possibly suffering from a coronavirus infection, the vet has three options to make a diagnosis:

  • Indirect pathogen detection: blood serum or abdominal dropsy secretion tests can measure the level of antibodies produced by the immune system using specific tests (ELISA or immunofluorescence).
  • Direct pathogen detection: faeces, blood or abdominal dropsy secretion tests allow a molecular-biological examination (RT-PCR, real-time polymerase chain reaction) to be carried out at a veterinary laboratory. With cats that have already passed away, the granuloma can be pathologically examined, which is the safest method of detection.
  • Laboratory diagnosis: a reduction in red blood cells (erythrocytes), some immune cells (e.g. lymphocytes and thrombocytes), albumin and increased concentrations of plasma protein and fibrinogen are signs of FIP.

How is a coronavirus infection treated in cats?

Diarrhoea and fever can be treated pharmacologically in the context of an FECV infection. However, feline infectious peritonitis is unfortunately not treatable. There are merely supportive measures available, which improve the remaining quality of life and reduce the cat's suffering. If this is no longer possible, getting a vet to put the cat to sleep should be considered.

Coronavirus in cats – what is the prognosis?

The prognosis of an FECV infection is generally good, but there is always the danger of it mutating to FIPV. If it eventually ends up being clinical FIP, unfortunately the imminent death of the cat can be expected.

How can I protect my cat from coronavirus?

The following preventive measures protect your cat from feline coronavirus infections:

  • Regularly cleaning the litter box, food and water bowl
  • Avoiding stress
  • Regularly examining pregnant cats and litters as well as always avoiding contact with infected cats
  • There is a vaccine against feline infectious peritonitis available from the age of 16 weeks, although this is subject to controversial discussion.

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