Cats can become infected with the feline coronavirus (FCoV). It’s actually quite common. It is highly contagious – 80-90 percent of families with many cats are affected. It affects the gastrointestinal tract.
Yes, cats can get infected with the coronavirus. However, it is not identical to the virus that causes COVID-19.
No, FCoV is not synonymous with the coronavirus COVID-19 (this virus is called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 [SARS-CoV-2]). While the virus is believed to have been transmitted from bats to humans, there is no evidence that FCoV can be transmitted from cats to humans.
Cats have the receptors for SARS-CoV-2 in their airways. Cats in experiments could be infected with the original SARS virus and transmit it to other cats. You are not sick and have not transmitted the virus to others. So far, no cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection in cats have been documented.
Cats become infected with FCoV by swallowing the virus. The virus attaches to and takes over the cells of the small intestine. It replicates itself using the cells’ internal systems. The replicating virus is then excreted in the feces. Another cat using the same litter box or lavatory area will then pick up some of the virus on their paws/fur and swallow it through self-grooming. So the cycle continues.
The majority of affected cats show no symptoms
If they do show symptoms, it is often mild, self-limiting diarrhea (due to damage to cells in the small intestine).
While FCoV does not cause serious illness in its natural form, in some cats it can develop into a very dangerous (usually fatal) condition called feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). It is not known why this mutation develops. FIP symptoms include the following
- Sporadic fever
- Severe somnolence
- The inability of kittens to develop
- Accumulation of fluid in the abdomen and/or chest
- difficulty breathing
- difficulties with the eyes
While FCoV is very common, FIP is not. The vast majority of cats infected with FCoV recover without complications.
We rarely test for FCoV. Not that we couldn’t, but since it’s so common (in both sick and healthy cats) a positive result is basically useless.
There is no specific therapy for FCoV.
Most cases go unnoticed, and the cat heals completely without any therapy.
If FIP develops (which cannot be prevented), medication can be given to relieve symptoms. As with most viral diseases, a cure is difficult to obtain.
A 2018 study found that a drug called GS-441524 was successful in stopping feline coronavirus from reproducing in ten experimentally infected cats. In addition, other studies have shown that GS-441524 is beneficial in cats with spontaneously established infection. These were small studies (February 2019, 34 cats; March 2020, 4 cats). Not all cats survived the 12-week study period, and several relapsed during the follow-up period.
Despite the sparse data and considering the usually poor results in FIP, GS-44152 was soon touted as a miracle drug and a stealth market for manufacture and purchase has developed. Cat owners (and some vets) acquired it primarily through social media groups. The drug offered in this way is unlicensed and untested – you have no idea what you are getting and we strongly caution against taking this route.
Remdesivir, a prodrug of GS-44152, is an alternative. You may have heard of this drug in connection with COVID-19 therapies – it was recently approved in Australia, although it’s still not clear which patients will receive it. There are some ongoing clinical trials for treating cats with FIP, and a compound version is available for clinical use in animal patients – but use in pets is currently experimental and unapproved (i.e. unapproved for this reason).
Remdesivir is administered intravenously (initially intravenously, then subcutaneously, although the latter appears to be painful and causes fibrosis at the injection sites). A 12-week treatment costs about 5000 euros