Olive the cat is a gentle soul, so the two veterinarians who showed up in full protective gear at her Seattle home recently didn’t have any trouble bundling her up and sticking a swab down her throat to test for the novel coronavirus. The vets also collected a blood sample from the cooperative cat, before letting her go about her business.
“She was a very good girl,” said Dr. Katie Kuehl, of Washington State University’s Veterinary Clinical Sciences program. Some cats aren’t as willing to offer themselves up for science, but Kuehl knows how to handle them, too. “If you can just get in there and get it done quickly, they hardly know it’s happening.”
Kuehl and her colleagues hope to collect samples from at least 100 other pets across King County in the coming weeks as part of a research project to understand the way the virus spreads to domestic animals.
Even though the new coronavirus is believed to have initially jumped to humans from animals — most likely bats — there’s no indication so far that dogs, cats or other pets can pass the pathogen to their owners. The few documented cases in pets and zoo animals have all gone in the other direction, with people infecting the animals.
Tigers in the Bronx zoo and mink on a farm in the Netherlands most likely picked up the virus from their human tenders, while isolated reports of infected dogs and cats seem to be linked to owners with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.
“Right now the information suggests that companion animals are a dead end host — the disease goes there, but it doesn’t go anywhere else,” said Kuehl, who is collaborating with scientists at the University of Washington’s Center for One Health Research. “But this is something we need to understand better to keep families and animals safe.”
The project is open to households with dogs, cats, hamsters or ferrets where at least one person has tested positive for the virus. An earlier requirement that the positive test must have been within the past two weeks is being dropped because it excluded too many potential volunteers, said the UW’s Vickie Ramirez, research coordinator. The protocol now includes families with a positive test at any time.
Olive’s owner, Jane Newton, tested positive for the virus in mid-April. An ICU nurse at UW Medical Center — Northwest, Newton suspects she got infected on the job. Her case wasn’t severe, and she never ran a fever. Her main symptoms were loss of smell, nausea and vomiting.
As a medical professional, she offered herself and her family up for any relevant research studies, not expecting they would include her pet.
As they did with the Olive, the tag team of veterinarians try to collect nasal or throat swabs from every animal to be analyzed for signs of active infection. The blood samples will be used to test for antibodies, which can reveal past infections.
The analyses are being done at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at WSU, which was one of the first veterinary labs in the country to develop and verify animal-specific tests. “We didn’t want to use test kits that could be used for the human response because of the shortages,” lab director Tim Baszler said.
The tests were developed at the request of Public Health — Seattle & King County, which was trying to figure out whether cats at nursing homes where people were infected might also harbor the virus, Baszler explained. Several of the cats were tested, but none were positive. Nor were two sick anteaters the lab tested after a caretaker at an unidentified zoo fell sick with COVID-19.
One of the project’s main goals is to understand exactly how companion animals get infected, so there’s a questionnaire for owners to fill out about how intimately their lives intersect their pets.
“We ask how much time they spend with their animals, do they sleep in the same bed, do they allow their pets to eat food from the same plates or bowls they use,” said Ramirez, who acknowledges her own pet would likely be vulnerable. “My cat breathes my exhalations all night, because she’s in my face.”
Of the four pets the project has tested so far, none were positive for the virus.
That includes Olive, even though Newton says she never refrained from cuddling the cat during her illness.
Newton’s daughter, who lives with her, also never came down with the virus. It’s hard to say why, but both women also participated in ongoing, placebo-controlled trials of the anti-malaria medication hydroxychloroquine, which is being studied to see if it can reduce the severity of infection and prevent infection in people exposed to the disease.
Kuehl’s advice for pet owners who want to keep their animals from getting infected is to follow the same social-distancing rules: keep them six feet away from other people, and, as hard as it might be, keep them away from sick family members.
“Treat your pet like you would any other member of the family,” she said.
The pet study is being funded by the Wild Lives Foundation, created by Jody Allen, sister of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. More information is available at: https://deohs.washington.edu/cohr/covid-19-and-pets-study-caps