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House Pets Can Catch, Spread SARS

House Cats and Ferrets Are Easily Infected With SARS Virus From Humans
WebMD Health News

Oct. 29, 2003 -- The number of animals harboring the virus that causes SARS may be much larger than once thought, and some of them might be in your own home.

New research shows that common house pets such as cats and ferrets may easily become infected with the SARS virus and spread the disease to others.

Researchers say the original source of the virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is still unknown, but many suspect it emerged from a wild animal species.

However, the results of a new study suggest that the animal reservoir from which the virus may have jumped to humans may include a wide range of animals, both domestic and wild.

"The observation that two distinctly related carnivores can so easily be infected with the virus indicates that the reservoir for this pathogen may involve a range of animal species," write researcher Byron E.E. Martina, of Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and colleagues.

SARS Virus Spreads Easily Among Animals

Previous research has already shown that exotic animals such as Chinese ferret badgers, masked palm civets, and raccoon dogs can be infected with a virus very similar to the SARS virus. Domestic cats living in an apartment complex in Hong Kong that was particularly hard hit by the SARS outbreak also were found to be infected with the SARS virus.

In this study, researchers found through laboratory testing that both domestic cats and ferrets were easily infected with SARS virus taken from a human patient. They also transmitted the virus to other animals that live with them.

The infected cats showed no signs of SARS-related illness, but three of the ferrets developed SARS symptoms and one of them died within four days of infection.

"Our results show that ferrets and domestic cats are susceptible to experimental infection by [the SARS virus], and that the virus is efficiently transmitted to animals living with them," write the researchers. "These species might therefore be useful as animal models to test antiviral drugs or vaccine candidates against SARS."

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