There is a growing body of research into the potential for pets to pick up coronavirus. Following reports of cats in Belgium and Hong Kong catching Covid-19 from their owners, researchers in China confirmed in early April that cats and ferrets are susceptible to infection. 

More recently, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed that two pet cats in New York tested positive for the disease, as well as eight lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo. 

But while experts have found that cats can contract the virus from humans, it remains unclear if the reverse is possible – a prospect that needs to be better understood, according to the report’s authors. 

“There is a public health need to recognise and further investigate the potential chain of human-cat-human transmission,” the researchers wrote in a letter to the NEJM. 

“This is of particular importance given the potential for Sars-CoV-2 transmission between family members in households with cats while living under ‘shelter-in-place’ orders.”

It is thought cats spread the disease in much the same way as humans, by shedding the virus from their nasal passages, but it is not yet clear whether they transmit enough virus to infect humans. 

“Cats are still much more likely to get Covid-19 from you, rather than you get it from a cat,” Keith Poulsen, the director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, said.

The researchers have urged people not to abandon their pets due to the pandemic – instead, according to advice from health bodies including the CDC, cats should be kept from people who are infected. 

CDC guidelines add that the risk of pets spreading coronavirus to people “is considered to be low” and it is clear that the biggest risk remains the chance of picking up an infection from other people, not pets. 

Dr Peter Halfmann, who co-lead the latest research, said owners with symptoms should not kiss their cats, but that otherwise life can continue as usual. 

“My cat sleeps on a pillow right next to me,” he said and, asked by the Associated Press whether the results of the experiment had changed that habit, he added: “He was there last night.”

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