Kitten becomes first pet infected with Covid-19 in South Korea

Kitten becomes first pet infected with Covid-19 in South Korea after catching the virus from its owners

  • Kitten infected at missionary school where it was being raised in the city of Jinju 
  • Three cats were tested when they were moved away from school amid outbreak
  • Covid cases among cats have been recorded in Britain, Brazil and Japan
  • Comes as experts say animals may also be required to have covid jabs in future  

A kitten has become the first animal to be infected by Covid-19 in South Korea after catching the virus from its owners. 

The kitten was infected at the International Prayer Centre, a missionary school in the southern city of Jinju where more than 100 people have been infected.

The pet kitten was tested along with its mother and sibling when the cats were being transferred to an animal shelter.

Cats with Covid have been reported in Britain, Brazil and Japan, while a dog died in Hong Kong last year after testing positive for the virus. 

The pet kitten was tested along with its mother and sibling when the cats were being transferred to an animal shelter (stock image)

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun (pictured during a press conference last week) on Sunday ordered health officials to ‘scientifically evaluate the possibility of transmission of COVID-19 between humans and animals and keep the public well informed.’

Cats and COVID-19: Q&A 

How do cats catch coronavirus?

Cats become infected in the same way as humans do, by inhaling infected droplets after an infected person coughs or sneezes. 

There have been a handful of cases around the world and almost all appear to have caught it off their owners. Luckily, animals are far less susceptible to infection. 

The biggest cat to fall victim is Nadia, a four-year-old Malayan tiger at New York’s Bronx Zoo. She made a full recovery.

Could dogs and other animals get it too?

Yes, there have been cases in dogs and other pets around the world. Some animals are particularly susceptible. 

Hundreds of thousands of minks have been slaughtered on farms in Spain and the Netherlands following outbreaks.

Can humans catch Covid from infected pets?

There is no evidence that animals transmit it to humans, with research suggesting they do not ‘shed’ enough virus to be infectious. 

However, Government scientists have warned that animals could act as ‘fomites’, in the same way as surfaces such as door handles do.

For example, if an infected person  coughed on their dog, the virus could survive on its fur and be passed to another person when they stroke it.

What about animals spreading it to each other?

There is evidence that cats can spread coronavirus to other cats. 

In May, researchers at the University of Wisconsin conducted an experiment when they infected three cats with the virus, then put three Covid-free felines in with them. 

The three newcomers went on to test positive after catching it from the infected animals.    

How bad are the symptoms of the virus in cats?

Covid-19 seems to be far less deadly in animals than in humans. The British cat who tested positive showed mild clinical symptoms, but made a full recovery.

Many other felines which have tested positive displayed no symptoms at all.

I have tested positive – how can I protect my pet?

Public Health England has urged pet owners to wash their hands before and after contact with animals. The British Veterinary Association advises infected people to restrict contact with animals.

Owners who test positive should also keep cats indoors if possible.

Should I put a mask on my cat or dog?

No! Dr Jenny Stavisky, of the University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine, explains: ‘They are likely to find it scary. It may, however, be a good idea to try to acclimatise your pet gently to seeing people wearing masks so they don’t get frightened.’

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Sunday ordered health officials to ‘scientifically evaluate the possibility of transmission of COVID-19 between humans and animals and keep the public well informed.’

South Korea is a pet-loving nation with around a third of its 50 million people keeping animals in their homes.

In July, health officials in England revealed that a cat and its owners had tested positive for coronavirus.

The animal suffered from a runny nose and shortness of breath but made a full recovery along with the owners, Downing Street said.

At the time experts warned against cuddling pets and last night a group of scientists in Britain and the United States argued that cats and dogs could require vaccines.

Researchers from the University of East Anglia, the Earlham Institute in Norwich and the University of Minnesota said that transmission from animals to humans poses a ‘significant long-term risk.’ 

‘It is not unthinkable that vaccination of some domesticated animal species might … be necessary to curb the spread of the infection,’ they wrote.

In Denmark last year, hundreds of Covid-19 cases were caused by variants associated with farmed mink, leading to millions of the animals being culled.

One of the authors, Cock van Oosterhout, professor of evolutionary genetics at UEA, said: ‘It makes sense to develop vaccines for pets … We really need to be prepared for any eventuality.’

He pointed out that Russia has started to develop a vaccine for pets.

Kevin Tyler, editor-in-chief of Virulence, said: ‘Cats are asymptomatic but they are infected by it and they can infect humans with it.

‘The risk is that, as long as there are these reservoirs, that it starts to pass as it did in the mink from animal to animal, and then starts to evolve animal-specific strains, but then they spill back into the human population and you end up essentially with a new virus which is related which causes the whole thing all over again.’

He said that while mink were culled in Denmark, ‘if you were thinking about domestic animals, companion animals, then you might think about whether you could vaccinate to stop that from happening’.

He added: ‘It’s not an obvious risk yet.’

In their editorial, the scientists wrote: ‘Continued virus evolution in reservoir animal hosts, followed by spillback events into susceptible human hosts, poses a significant long-term risk to public health.

‘SARS-CoV-2 can infect a wide range of host species, including cats, dogs, mink and other wild and domesticated species and, hence, the vaccination of domesticated animals might be required to halt further virus evolution and spillback events.

‘Whilst the vaccination campaigns against SARS-CoV-2/ Covid-19 are being rolled out worldwide, new virus variants are likely to continue to evolve that have the potential to sweep through the human population.’

They said that more transmissible virus strains, such as the UK variant, require more people to be vaccinated to keep coronavirus under control.

‘Vaccination against a viral pathogen with such high prevalence globally is without precedent and we, therefore, have found ourselves in uncharted waters,’ they wrote.

The scientists have called on governments to consider the continued use of strict control measures such as masks and social distancing as the only way to reduce the evolution and spread of new Covid-19 variants.  

Can animals catch Covid-19?

The chance of your dog catching Covid-19 strain is very slim, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Professor James Wood, head of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Despite millions of people having had Covid-19, the numbers of pets found to be ill or infected is still tiny. 

‘Put simply, our pet dogs and cats can catch Covid-19 from us, when they are living with us, but only do on very rare occasions.’ 

Scientists say pets don’t appear to get very sick with Covid-19, and various pet organisations and charities say there is no need to be worried.

The first dog in the world to catch coronavirus died after it was declared disease-free and returned home to its owner in Hong Kong.

The owner of the 17-year-old Pomeranian, whose also had Covid-19, did not allow the dog to be autopsied, so the exact cause of death remains unknown.

How do animals get infected?

Animals are likely to catch the virus the same way a human would — when respiratory droplets enter the pets’ nose or mouth.

Professor Wood said: ‘Cats may become infected by the high doses of virus transmitted by their infected owners in some settings. 

‘The relative size of a cat versus a human means that there is far less exhaled breath from one cat in a house, compared to the exhaled breath volumes from a human patient. 

‘Further, the grooming behaviour of cats means that they are more likely to catch infection from an owner than vice versa.’

When pets have been reported to have the virus, they have signs that indicate a respiratory illness. 

Downing Street said the cat in England with the virus had symptoms of a respiratory infection with a nasal discharge and some shortness of breath.

Scientists have shown that cats, ferrets and hamsters are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. But ducks, chickens and pigs don’t appear to be.

Professor William Weir, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Veterinary Medicine, said ‘the significance of SARS-CoV-2 as a feline or canine pathogen is unknown’. 

He added that there have been no reports of cats passing the virus to dogs or vice versa. 

Can humans catch Covid-19 from animals?

There is no evidence that a human could catch the coronavirus from an animal in the same way as it would from another human.

Covid-19 is mainly spread through droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. 

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at Nottingham University, said pets produce ‘very low levels of the virus’ compared to humans.

Professor James Wood, head of department of veterinary medicine, University of Cambridge, added that pets would exhale far less breath — which may have virus droplets inside — than humans.

In any case where a pet has tested positive for the virus, the owner reportedly had it first. 

The WHO says: ‘While there has been one instance of a dog being infected in Hong Kong, to date, there is no evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit Covid-19.’ 

Professor Weir said: ‘At present, there is no evidence that cats, dogs or other domestic animals play any role in the epidemiology of human infections with SARS-CoV-2.’ 

An official report by the UK’s top vet said household pets may carry the virus on their fur, which risks spreading the disease from person to person.

It said: ‘Close contact such as cuddling, grooming, feeding and allowing animals to share food could all allow the transfer of virus.’

The document, prepared by the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer, was considered on April 30 at a meeting of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

The report warned that the virus could survive on pet fur, meaning ‘there is a plausible pathway that the animal may act as a fomite [infectious object] for at least a few hours and transfer virus to others in the household.’ 

It added that pet owners who have symptoms to prevent their dog or cat from coming into contact with ‘susceptible humans’. 

How many pets have had the infection?

A very small number of pets have been reported to have the coronavirus in other countries in Europe, North America and Asia.

The first dog in the world to catch coronavirus in Hong Kong, a 17-year-old Pomeranian, died on March 16.

It was declared disease-free and returned home to its owner, a 60-year-old woman who was hospitalised with Covid-19 the month prior, after being quarantined at a government facility.

The dog was never autopsied, and so the exact cause of death was not determined.

What precautions should I take when dealing with animals?

If you are sick with Covid-19, it is recommended you restrict contact with your dog and see if other people can look after them.

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says: ‘It is still recommended that people sick with Covid-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus. This can help ensure both you and your animals stay healthy.’  

How to you stay safe around your pet: 

  • Wash your hands after handling animals, their food, waste, or supplies 
  • Practise good pet hygiene and clean up after pets properly 
  • Take pets to the vet regularly and talk to them if you have questions about your pet’s health 

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