Texas A&M Research Project Identifies First COVID-19 Positive Cats In Texas

By sampling dogs and cats whose owners have tested positive in Brazos County, the team is working to understand how pets living in ‘high-risk’ households may be impacted by SARS-CoV-2.

Story by Jennifer Gauntt

Three people in protective gear take samples from a small dog
Samples are collected from Daisy by field research team members (from left) research associate Lisa Auckland, postdoctoral associate Italo Zecca (MPH, PhD), and doctoral student Edward Davila (MPH).

The transmission of COVID-19 to pets has been the source of much discussion within the scientific community.

While reports have confirmed a small, but growing, list of positive cases among companion animals and exotic cats in the United States, new Texas A&M University research efforts are beginning to shed additional light on the topic.

In further exploring the degree to which pets are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, a team led by Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS) associate professor of epidemiology Dr. Sarah Hamer is seeing evidence that pets living in “high-risk” households with people who have COVID-19 in Brazos County and the surrounding areas may also become infected with this virus. Brazos County includes Bryan-College Station and is the home to Texas A&M University.

“We’re one of a few veterinary research groups across the country that are conducting similar investigations to provide an enhanced understanding about SARS-CoV-2 infections in pets—asking questions such as are pets being exposed? Becoming infected? Can they spread the virus to humans or other animals? Do they get sick?” Hamer said. “It’s really exciting that research teams are beginning to respond to the crisis in this way.”

Collaborators Across Campus

In their ongoing project, Hamer has partnered with Dr. Gabriel Hamer, in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (COALS), and Dr. Rebecca Fischer, in the Texas A&M School of Public Health, to recruit participants for the study, sample pets at each household, and test the samples in their laboratory facilities.

Someone collects samples with a nasal swab from a grey cat
A nasal swab sample is collected from Crocket, a study participant from Bryan, Texas.

“By actively screening pets who may not be symptomatic and who are living with people who have tested positive for COVID-19, Dr. Hamer’s project provides important new information about the transmission pathways of the virus,” said Dr. John August, interim dean of the CVMBS. “This project reflects the dedication and leadership of scientists from three of our colleges at Texas A&M University, working together with a One Health approach to improve animal and human health and to address this serious pandemic.”

Since beginning their sampling of cats and dogs whose owners consented to their participation, the team has identified two asymptomatic cats from different houses in Brazos County that have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 while living in a household with a person who was diagnosed with COVID-19. Additional pets have confirmatory testing underway.

“At the time we collected samples from these cats at their houses, the owners did not report any signs of disease in their pets during the course of their own illnesses, but one of the cats later developed several days of sneezing after we tested it,” Hamer said.

Safeguards To Protect Your Pets

Someone in protective gear holds a brown chihuahua
Lexie, a chihuahua living in Bryan, Texas, had her nose, mouth, and other areas swabbed and gave a small blood sample as part of her participation in the study.

“Our study was not designed to test the directionality of transmission of the virus (whether pets become infected from owners, or vice versa). But what this does tell us is that pets can become infected in high-risk households and pets should, therefore, be considered in the way we manage these households as part of the public health response,” Hamer said.

“The American Veterinary Medical Association and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID-19 One Health Working Group emphasize that people who test positive should isolate from their pets or wear a face mask around their pets, just as they should do with other people,” she said. “We know that is probably really hard if you are quarantined at home and just want to snuggle with your pet, but it is important to do during a person’s illness to protect both human and animal health.”

The team plans to repeat the sampling of any pet with positive test results and to continue to communicate with pet owners. In addition, the team will attempt to isolate infectious virus from the swab samples and conduct antibody testing from serum (blood) samples for all pets in the study to learn about animal infection and exposure.

The team has been sampling pets living in households with a family member who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 since mid-June, with owners opting their pets into the study after being diagnosed with the disease.

“Our goal is to learn more about the different roles that pets may play in the transmission cycle of SARS-CoV-2 and to understand the timing of animal infections in relation to human infections,” Hamer said. “We hope that the information will be used to enhance surveillance programs and, ultimately, help protect both human and animal health.”

Contributing To The Larger Cause

Hamer is working closely with the Brazos County Health Department, which is assisting with sharing information about the project to those who test positive for pet-enrollment purposes. So far, the team has sampled several dozen households across the county.

Samples are tested through the team’s own biosafety level 2 and 3 research labs on campus. Samples that are initially positive on the two tests performed at the Texas A&M labs are considered “presumptive positive” and are then sent to USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL) for confirmation. The team is also working with the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) and the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) in data reporting.

A man in protective equipment tests samples in the lab
Swabs from the field are processed in the laboratory by postdoctoral associate Chris Roundy (MPH, PhD) and research associate Wendy Tang (PhD) (not shown).

“We have a pretty rigorous testing approach here at A&M. After RNA extraction, the samples have to test positive in two different assays with our lab team before being sent to NVSL,” Hamer said. “All of our field and lab work has been through multiple approval processes with appropriate organizations in looking out for the animal’s and also humans’ best interest.”

The collected data are contributing to a national database and will contribute to a scientific paper on this work. The team will also be seeking funding to continue the work and also to expand the geographic region of their sampling.

“We hope to continue to be right there to sample pets in these settings so we can contribute more to the emerging science on this topic,” Hamer said.

Our field and lab teams—which include doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, research associates and scientists, and professors from the CVMBS and COALS—have been working really hard and I appreciate that they’re willing to work long days, especially braving the heat with many layers of personal protective equipment, because it’s one small way we can learn more to help combat the pandemic.”

To learn more about the project, visit tx.ag/BCSCovidResearch.

###

For more information about the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVM Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; jgauntt@cvm.tamu.edu; 979-862-4216