More cats might be contracting COVID-19 than first believed, according to a study that looked at felines in Wuhan, China, where the first known outbreak of the disease began.
Researchers from Huazhong Agricultural University took blood samples from 102 cats between January and March 2020, following the first outbreak.
They also collected nasal and anal swabs from the felines.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Emerging Microbes & Infections, showed COVID-19 antibodies present in 15 of the blood samples taken from the cats.
It found that of these, 11 cats had neutralising antibodies -- proteins that bind so successfully to a virus they block the infection.
The study shows cats are fighting off the virus with naturally developed antibodies, however, they could be at risk of reinfection.
According to the results of return visits, none of the cats actually tested positive for COVID-19 or displayed obvious symptoms and none of them died.
The sample of cats looked at included 46 abandoned from 3 animal shelters, 41 from 5 pet hospitals, and 15 cats were from COVID-19 patient families, the researchers said.
They noted that the three cats with the highest levels of antibodies were all owned by patients who had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
There were also signs of cats being infected with the virus by other cats from those that were abandoned or based in the pet hospitals, the researchers said.
According to Meilin Jin, lead author of the study, while there is currently no evidence for cat-to-human transmission, precautions should be considered.
"Although the infection in stray cats could not be fully understood, it is reasonable to speculate that these infections are probably due to the contact with SARS-CoV-2 polluted environment, or COVID-19 patients who fed the cats," Jin said.
"Therefore measures should be considered to maintain a suitable distance between COVID-19 patients and companion animals such as cats and dogs, and hygiene and quarantine measures should also be established for those high-risk animals," Jin added.