There’s no doubt that our precious pets helped to see us through the pandemic: whether that was encouraging us to go out for a daily walk, or sitting on our laps when we felt under the weather. But, although it’s well documented that coronavirus spreads like wildfire among humans, there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that animals can also contract the illness. 

Researchers at The Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre (TRVRC) in Marlow have reported four cases of the Alpha variant – now the dominant strain in the UK – in cats and two in dogs. The vets used a PCR test to identify the Alpha variant in two of the cats and one of the dogs, and detected Covid antibodies against the variant in the three other pets. All of the animals who were diagnosed with Covid also suffered from severe myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle – and their positive Covid results were confirmed six weeks after they displayed signs of cardiac disease.

Although animals have been infected with covid before, this was the first study to report cases of the Alpha variant in cats and dogs. “We also reported the atypical clinical manifestations characterised by severe heart abnormalities, which is a well-recognised complication in people affected by COVID-19 but has never described in pets before,” said paper author and veterinary cardiologist Luca Ferasin of The Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre. Indeed, in humans the Alpha variant is the most transmissible, and dangerous strain yet: it is thought to be around 1.5 times more infectious than earlier covid variants, and the risk of it leading to death is around 1.6 times higher. 

The study was initiated after veterinarians noticed a rise in the incidences of myocarditis in pets. “It’s a rare condition for vets to notice,” explains Pete Wedderburn, The Telegraph’s resident vet. “The study notes that incidents of myocarditis cases over the preceding 12 months was 1.4% of all cardiology cases at the TRVRC. That increased to 12.8 per cent of all cases seen from mid-December 2020 through February 2021, which mimics the timeline of the Covid pandemic.” This suggests that while pets do not suffer the respiratory signs of Covid-19, a low percentage do get myocarditis and show signs of heart failure. Wedderburn explains the signs of myocarditis in dogs and cats include fainting, lethargy, inappetence and difficulty breathing. Reassuringly, all of the pets analysed in the study made a good recovery. 

“It seems many Covid cases are completely inapparent in dogs and cats,” says Wedderburn. “The main message here is that if you’re unwell yourself, you should keep a bit of distance between you and your pets. The temptation might be to snuggle up to your cat, but this puts your pet at risk of picking something up.”

This isn’t the first time that a coronavirus case has been identified in a pet. Last year, a 17-year-old Pomeranian in Hong Kong became the world’s first dog to test positive for coronavirus, after catching it from his owner, Yvonne Chow Hau Yee. In July last year, the virus was first detected in a UK cat. The virus is also capable of infecting a range of other species, from hamsters to gorillas; outbreaks have been seen among Sumatran tigers at a Zoo in Indonesia, and minks on a farm in Denmark. 

Previous studies suggest that transmission nearly always occurs from human to animal, rather than the other way round. The researchers from Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre found that many of the infected pets’ owners developed respiratory symptoms and tested positive for Covid-19 around three – six weeks before their animals became ill. This is supported by a study undertaken earlier this year by researchers at Utrecht University. Swabs were taken from 310 pets in 196 households where a Covid infection had been detected in humans. Six cats and seven dogs returned a positive PCR result, while 54 animals tested positive for virus antibodies. Reassuringly, follow-up tests showed that all PCR-positive animals cleared up the infection, and went on to develop antibodies against the illness. 

Mink, says Wedderburn, and other members of the Mustelidae family, can transmit coronavirus to humans. This is because their ACE2 receptor – which acts as a doorway for the cells which cause Covid – is very similar to that of humans. “The ACE2 receptor found in dogs and cats is just over 50 per cent similar to a human one, so it’s very different. The bottom line is that pets aren’t carrying the virus, and passing it on to humans,” he says. 

One study suggested that animal-animal transmission is possible, after felines passed the virus to each other while in close contact. However, Wedderburn explains this study was more theoretical; in reality, cats tend to be “solitary creatures” who don’t spend much time in close proximity to one another. “What we’re talking about is a low level possibility; nothing that people should be worried about,” he says. 

Although these incidents are rare, experts do advise people who have Covid to err on the side of caution when it comes to interacting with their pets. Justine Shotton, president of the British Veterinary Association, explains that pet owners who have Covid, or are self-isolating with symptoms, should restrict contact with their pets as a precautionary measure. “We also recommend that owners who are confirmed or suspected to have Covid-19 should keep their cat indoors if possible, but only if the cat is happy to be kept indoors. Some cats cannot stay indoors due to stress-related medical reasons,” she adds.

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