Cats have been a Godsend in this era of social distancing.
People are looking for something — anything — to get their minds off grim reality and the repetitive, depressing 24/7 virus coverage that dominates television.
Cats have delivered. Our furry friends have been covering themselves in glory, providing an endless supply of viral videos and making people smile just by being their endearing, quirky selves.
Most of all they’ve been there for us at home, soothing anxieties and lowering blood pressure with each lap they claim and each affectionate nuzzle. We may be isolated from other people, but when there’s a cat in the house you never feel truly alone. (If for nothing else, their meows at meal time will make sure of that.)
For me it’s not even a question: Without my Buddy, I’d be slipping into depression of a kind that can’t be cured with Netflix bingeing, books or games.
Now we’ve got to return the favor and protect our cats.
The first “confirmed” case of a cat contracting COVID-19 has come from Belgium, where a veterinary lab ran tests on a sick cat with respiratory problems and concluded the cat picked up the virus from her human.
“The cat lived with her owner, who started showing symptoms of the virus a week before the cat did,” said Steven Van Gucht, a public health official in Belgium, according to the Brussels Times. “The cat had diarrhea, kept vomiting and had breathing difficulties. The researchers found the virus in the cat’s feces.”
This is not good news.
Medical diagnostic labs in the US have tested thousands of pets for COVID-19 and haven’t found a single infected animal.
The World Health Organization has repeatedly said there is no evidence of dogs or cats serving as hosts for the virus or infecting humans, although that organization has killed its own credibility with its effusive praise for the Chinese government, and by parroting Chinese insistence that the virus couldn’t be transmitted from human to human. (WHO continued telling the world there was no evidence of contagion through late January, some six weeks after it was clear the virus was multiplying.)
The deadly consequences of misinformation
Unfortunately that didn’t stop innumerable people from abandoning their cats and dogs in China, leaving them in apartments and houses to starve. One Chinese animal welfare group, which is partnered with Humane Society International, says “tens of thousands” of pets were abandoned.
Some Chinese territories instructed people to kill their pets, and there are sickening reports of people clubbing defenseless animals to death in the streets.
That may not be surprising in China, which has an abominable record on human and animal rights, but now there are disturbing reports from all over the world. Shelter operators in the UK, for instance, say they’re fielding calls from people who want to abandon their pets because of the Coronavirus.
“Mostly, it’s people who haven’t got access to the right information online,” Claire Jones, who works at a shelter in Stoke-on-Trent, told the BBC. “It’s a nightmare.”
Misinformation and confusion are compounding the problem, the result of a new media ecosystem in which news is whatever a person’s social circle posts on their feeds and news consumers don’t distinguish between reliable press outlets (Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Reuters, etc) and the thousands of less scrupulous sites masquerading as legitimate sources of news.
Thus, when a dog in China tested positive for trace elements of Coronavirus — but blood tests were negative — sites like Quartz wasted no time pumping out headlines declaring that dogs and cats can be infected.
Exercising caution with information
It looks like the Belgium case is another in which fact and nuance are sacrificed for clicks. Belgian virologist Hans Nauwynck is among the skeptics who believe veterinary authorities in his country acted too rashly.
“Before sending this news out into the world, I would have had some other tests carried out,” Nauwynck told the Brussels Times.
To confirm the positive test, the lab used a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. A PCR test “allows scientists to multiply a very small sample of genetic material to produce a quantity large enough to study,” the Times noted. But the test only confirmed that the cat suffered from a flu-like virus. It did not specifically match the viral infection with COVID-19.
“A clear link between virus excretion and clinical signs cannot be established, in part because other possible causes for the cat’s illness were not excluded,” wrote Ginger Macaulay, a veterinarian in Lexington, South Carolina.
In addition, authorities didn’t rule out the possibility that the sample was contaminated or maintain a forensic chain of possession that would ensure it was properly handled.
“I would advise people to slow down,” Nauwynck said. “There may somehow have been genetic material from the owner in the sample, and so the sample is contaminated.”
To be absolutely certain, he said, more tests should have been done to confirm the initial result, and certainly before making an announcement to the world. Veterinary authorities should have tested for the presence of antibodies in the cat’s system as well, he said, which is a sign that an immune system is fighting off an infection.
“I’m worried that people will be scared by this news and animals will be the ones to suffer, and that’s not right. As scientists we ought to put out clear and full information, and I don’t think that has happened.”
With reports about the infected cat spreading across the globe — and adding to existing fears — the Belgian virologist said panic could override reason, with catastrophic consequences for our little feline friends.
“I wouldn’t wish to be a cat tomorrow.”
12 thoughts on “Hug Your Cats Tight, Don’t Let Them Out Of Sight”
This just hurts my heart on so many levels – the same public that has fallen into panic buying toilet paper now has the media fear mongering; telling them to get rid of their pets. I can’t even fathom what the actual response will be to this and how many pets are going to be abandoned or killed. My herd is safely inside, with me, and NOTHING will make me change that or the love I have for each of them. Hugs to Buddy from my furbabies and from me.
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I think (and hope) it won’t reach the level it did in China, but that quote from the shelter employee sums up the problem: The queries they’re getting are from people who are misinformed due to rumors and sloppy news reports.
The problem with traffic-driven news is there’s every incentive to use inflammatory headlines and exaggerate things, because that drives clicks. Being reasonable and responsible doesn’t pay.
For example, today we’ve got countless headlines trumpeting a prediction that 200,000 Americans will die. The expert they’re quoting, Dr. Anthony Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) was very clear that the figure is based on predictive modeling showing a worst-case scenario if we don’t continue to take precautions and treat this virus seriously.
But that nuance is lost when people see headlines in their Facebook feeds: “200,000 Americans Could Die From Coronavirus, Health Experts Predict.”
A disturbing number of people don’t even bother to read beyond the headlines.
And that’s the real danger here. “A cat might have been infected” becomes “A cat has coronavirus” becomes “Cats and dogs are carriers” becomes “Can your pet transmit the virus to you?”
I’m also worried about strays and ferals in particular, something I didn’t address in this post. It’s already a long post and I don’t want to weigh it down, so I probably should follow up with a post specifically about those vulnerable cats.
Thanks for reading, Symphony, and thanks for your well wishes. Buddy and I are huddled here in NY. I hope you and yours stay safe as well. Cheers.
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My concern when I heard cats can contract the disease was so much different than how people reacted here. I was worried I would contract the virus and spread it to them fearing they would not recover as easily as I would. I have ten indoor-only cats social distancing from them is not an option for them or me. I believe in being careful outside the home and never ventured outside the home much before all this and now my son does not have to go to school
that I and he and the kitties remain quite safe but my reaction to the others is horrified while they worried that the pets may give them the virus I worried I may give it to them. It’s all relative I suppose for social distancing from people is preferred for me but I never met a cat I did not want to greet, LOL.
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I hear you on that. Not only does my cat sleep on my bed, he usually sleeps on top of me, so it would be very difficult to distance myself from him.
Cats certainly won’t get the same consideration as human victims when it comes to treatment. However, even if the Belgium case really is Coronavirus, the risk of human-to-cat infections is incredibly small.
Cats are excellent companions. My late girl Chelsea was my best friend no matter how lonely I was, she cheered me up. And my girl Holly always makes me laugh! 😀
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I hope Holly is keeping you good company during these days of social isolation. Buddy has been a good boy…for the most part lol.
It made me so MAD when I first read the story about the so called “infected” cat. Where’s the proof? Where are all the other infected cats if it’s true? There are so many STUPID IDIOTS already doing shit to animals that isn’t warranted because of this virus and you release this?! WTF??
I can’t tell you how many times I see the plea to NOT abandon your pet due to the virus in my feed on facebook. It makes me sick to my stomach and breaks my heart. If I could take in more pets to protect them, I would. But we rent our house so I can’t. It truly makes me cry just thinking of all the innocent animals that are being mistreated just because people are too damn stupid to educate themselves. Our cats are our lives and we love them so much.
I don’t believe for a second that my cats can give me the virus. We don’t kiss our kitties and they wouldn’t like it anyway (I’m allergic to them. Yes, I play and pet them all the time so I was a SUPER hand washer even before this started!). Even if we could give it to them, it’d be pretty hard in to do our house. We’d do anything for our babies. Meow Meow, Sneaky and Miss Jingles are at least safe from morons of this world, even though they have to live with us weirdos!
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Human beings and those not so human will ALWAYS try to find a scapegoat. It’s always those most helpless and vulnerable: animals, children and the elderly. Another excellent piece of writing, Steve. Thank you.
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No one is more likely to commit atrocities than a group of scared people given a target. I hope most people in the U.S. exhibit the good sense and compassion not to murder a bunch of helpless pets, but I do worry. Our local shelters are already pretty much full. Hope you and Buddy are doing well.
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Good points. People aren’t adopting now, shelters are operating at full capacity, donations aren’t coming in because the economy has stopped, and we’ll be in prime kitten season very soon. Shelters in my area are practically begging for people to foster kittens.
The Budster and I live in New York, so we are right in the middle of the worst of the outbreak, but we’re being careful. I haven’t gone out unless I absolutely need to. If a nightmare scenario comes to pass and irrational, scared people blame pets, the only way they’d get to Bud is over my dead body.