A report of a cat testing positive to COVID-19 in Hong Kong, and a preliminary Chinese study showing cats can transmit the virus to other cats has prompted the Australian Veterinary Association to advise its members to wear personal protective equipment when handling cats with COVID-19 positive owners.
The AVA has also recommended sick owners keep their cats indoors.
The advice came the same weekend the Bronx Zoo in the United States reported a tiger also tested positive to COVID-19.
However, veterinary scientists have emphasised there was as yet no evidence that humans could get COVID-19 from cats.
"There are now more than 1.2 million cases of COVID-19 infection reported in humans around the world and not a single case of human infection has been shown to be caused by a cat," said Professor Vanessa Barrs, the former head of Small Animal Medicine at the University of Sydney.
"What we do know is that on the odd occasion, infected people may be able to pass on the infection to their cats."
Vets urged to take caution
The President of the Australian Veterinary Association, Dr Julia Crawford, said COVID-19 positive pet owners needed to minimise contact with their pet to reduce the chance of the animal getting infected, and keep their pet inside.
"If you are sick, treat your pet as you would in other member of the household. Do not kiss, stroke or sneeze on them. Get somebody else to look after them and keep washing your hands," she said.
Dr Crawford said vets in particular needed to take extra care because of their high exposure to cats during veterinary procedures and must be cautious until the risk of infection from animals was fully understood.
"We don't know what sort of level of virus it would take to transmit it to humans from a pet. Mostly transmission would be probably from their coat, the same way as you would from a door or anything else that you touch," she said.
She said vets needed to stay healthy so they could look after animals.
"What we're asking is that people ring their vet before they go in. We can do a lot of things over the phone. We can arrange to meet you in the car park," Dr Crawford said.
"We're not going to abandon animal welfare, but we are going to protect our staff by limiting human contact."
The AVA recommended vets reschedule all but critical or emergency procedures where owners are COVID-19 positive until after the owner had cleared quarantine.
Dr Crawford reiterated cats and dogs posed no risk to households.
"Your pet is part of your family. There is nothing to suggest it will harm you. Giving up your cat or dog because of COVID-19 is not a reasonable thing to do," she said.
Hong Kong testing cats and dogs
Authorities in Hong Kong have tested 44 animals belonging to COVID-19 infected patients, including 29 dogs and 15 cats.
"What they found was that only three of those animals, two dogs and one cat, were infected," Professor Barrs said.
"So that's a total infection rate of only 6.8 per cent. What that tells me is that even among a population of high-risk animals that are exposed to infected people, the chance of infection occurring is still very low."
The Chinese study from the Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, concluded cats were highly susceptible to COVID-19, and could transmit the virus to other cats. The study recommended authorities test cats as well as humans for COVID-19.
The research found dogs were not very vulnerable to catching COVID-19.
Professor Barrs said the Harbin study did not mimic natural infections and had not yet been scrutinised by the scientific community.
She urged the public to not draw any conclusions until the study had gone through the peer-review process.ABC