COVID-19: Advice for Those Working With Unowned Cats in Homing Centres During the Coronavirus Crisis

The following article first appeared on iCatCare:

If you are part of a large organisation involved in homing cats, then they have probably given you direction and advice on how to deal with the many different situations which may arise during the coronavirus pandemic – follow the advice for the safety of staff and others.  There may also be government guidelines to try and follow, although it may be difficult to translate some general guidelines to specifics in what you are doing. However, there are also many individuals or small groups who may not have help in deciding what to do in these COVID-19 times. We hope this information will be helpful. Remember that the welfare of people is paramount, the health of employees or volunteers must come first, and stopping the spread will save lives.

Different organisations in different countries may be at different stages of ability to function, or are in lockdown or coming out of lockdown, depending on government direction. Whatever we do, we must prioritise human health and coronavirus control while trying to maintain care for the animals as much as we can.

General advice regarding coronavirus and cats

The advice International Cat Care and the International Society of Feline Medicine are giving remains as previously stated by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA):

  • For households with no symptoms of COVID-19, take normal sensible hygiene precautions and wash hands after handling pets
  • If you have symptoms of COVID-19 you should avoid close contact with pets if possible, wear a face mask and wash hands before and after handling any pet
  • There is no current evidence of transmission from pet fur to humans, hence no current advice to clean cats before handling them. The use of disinfectants on cats may cause significant distress to both cats and humans, and potential toxicity or chemical burns (especially for cats), so this is not recommended at this time

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) currently state there is no evidence that companion animals can spread the disease and there is no indication for taking measures that may compromise companion animal welfare.

Advice for those working with unowned cats

Here are some ways that organisations are being advised to function during the pandemic.

  1. Preserve critical functions

What constitutes critical functions may vary depending on the country you are in, what is required by law and what is possible.  It may simply be caring for the animals you have in your homing centre as best you can while protecting staff and volunteers.  It may include taking in cats from COVID-19 positive households or those that have been abandoned without any knowledge of where they come from.

  1. Suspend non-emergency activities

Staff and volunteers must not be put at risk going outside during lockdown and veterinarians will not want to undertake neutering at a time when they are trying to keep emergency functions open. This also applies to neutering clinics. The COVID-19 outbreak has affected veterinary services around the world. Veterinary clinics are subject to strict control measures according to the government or professional body of the country they are in. This may include closing to all but emergency cases and cancelling routine procedures such as neutering or vaccination. Emergencies refer to life-threatening, rapidly deteriorating, serious problems and the relief of suffering.

Don’t take in any animals unless it is absolutely essential and suspend homing unless you are able to undertake the adoption process online, see below, and sensible hygiene precautions and social distancing rules are followed at the point of handover.

If people call, ask them to keep the animals at home until the crisis is over. Have an answerphone message about being closed so you don’t take calls and have to turn people away. Use your website or social media communications to explain the situation. You can stay in touch via phone with people who are struggling, you can be a great source of support for your community in this way.

  1. Do what you have to as safely as possible

Follow all normal hygiene precautions when handling animals – hand wash before and after touching (this ensures other animal diseases cannot be passed from cat to cat too, so should be a normal part of your care for cats.)

Comprehensive handwashing guidelines are provided by the World Health Organization

As explained above, the risk of picking up the virus from cat coats is probably absolutely minimal, but it is worth just being careful. Most cats do not want to be handled, especially when they first arrive.

Follow social distancing guidelines, consider working in shifts, remove work clothes and shoes before going home if you can and keep washing hands before and after interacting with animals and people.

Those working alone or in small organisations will need a contingency for both illness and quarantine if they live with someone infected, as they should not be working with cats or other people for 14 days.

All homing centres should have effective cleaning protocols so these should continue, using the product according to the manufacturer’s instructions.  Most disinfectants are effective against the coronavirus.

Do not work in the homing centre at all if you are isolating or showing any signs of COVID-19 infection

A) Admitting emergency cats

Minimising interaction with people is obviously key to reducing risk.  Here are some suggestions about how to do that:

  • Make all necessary transactions by appointment only
  • Let people know of the new arrangements on your website or by phone so they understand what to do and why
  • Complete paperwork and gather the normal information on the cat beforehand over the phone, online conference call or via email etc, rather than face to face
  • Nobody should be allowed into the homing centre, even the waiting area or office, not even to use the toilet for example
  • Ensure the person bringing in the cat is not experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 infection and that one healthy person only brings in the cat
  • Ask the person to phone you from the car park to tell you they have arrived and not get out of their car
  • Collect the cat directly from the car maintaining social distance from the person and wearing a mask, apron and gloves (personal protective equipment, PPE)
  • Wipe over the surface of the cat carrier with any disinfectant safe for cats before putting it down and then either return it to the person who brought in the cat (preferred) or store away from contact with people or animals. Wash your hands after any contact with the carrier or cat
  • No paperwork should be accepted from the person, consent and other forms should be scanned or photographed by the carer/owner and emailed to you

B) Settling the cat in and caring for it

  • Put the cat in its pen/cage and leave it quietly. We do not advise wiping down the cat as that requires interaction which could actually bring homing centre workers into closer contact with the cat. Many cats would be fearful or aggressive (because of fear) if forced to undergo wiping as soon as they arrive in a strange place.  This also avoids the risk of bites or scratches which could require people to attend human health services for treatment, increasing risk of transmission from people and putting further pressure on the medical services.  There is no current evidence the virus can be spread from cats to humans
  • Use fresh clean bedding from the homing centre and do not accept any items from the person bringing in the cat
  • Wash hands (see link above) thoroughly, frequently and between handling cats or touching the pen/cage in which they are living
  • The virus is known to survive on smooth surfaces for about 72 hours and on paper for about 24 hours. Because cat hair is porous and fibrous, it is very unlikely that you would contract COVID-19 by touching the cat. However, with an abundance of caution, do not touch or have close contact with or groom the cat for a day or two – this will not harm the cat and will mitigate even this very remote risk.  Always wash hands before and after handling cats
  • Check with your veterinary practice how they are working and when they are open and how to get hold of them etc; if you are caring for cats you need to be sure you can access veterinary care if necessary
  • Maintain social distancing as you work – you may have to consider how you give medication if it has required two people working close together in the past – consider hiding pills, liquids or powders in treats or food 

C) Taking in cats from positive households

Taking cats from known positive households requires extra vigilance and should only be. Done where the cat’s welfare is at risk and there is no option for them to remain in the home. If you decide to accept a cat from a positive home, then implement the following precautions:

  • Ask that the person delivering the cat is not symptomatic or not in self-isolation for coronavirus
  • Ask the person to wipe down the surface of the carrier before putting it into the car
  • Transfer the cat to its pen/cage – do not keep the carrier but hand it back to the person, maintaining social distancing
  • Ensure PPE (gloves, aprons and masks) are worn during handover and whilst caring for the cat and dispense/wash these separately. Thorough hand washing can be used if preferred if gloves are not available.
  • Any clothing worn when working with the cats should be removed before leaving work and placed in a washable bag that can be put straight into a washing machine to avoid cross-contamination
  • Do not take in such cats if you are on the vulnerable list and have underlying health problems

D) Caring for the cat from a positive household

  • It has been shown under research conditions that cats can be infected and may be able to pass the virus on to other cats, but it is currently unclear if cat to cat transmission is possible in natural infections, with limited data from experimental studies only available. Therefore, even though this is very unlikely (and especially so in a well-constructed and managed homing centre with sneeze barriers), and with an abundance of caution, remove even a tiny risk to other cats by keeping the cat in isolation for 14 days. This is particularly important if the cat is from a home with COVID-19 positive or symptomatic owners
  • Group housing is not acceptable under these circumstances, cats from a COVID-19 positive household should be housed in quarantine-type facilities
  • Use mask, barrier clothing and gloves, frequent handwashing when interacting with the cat and cleaning its pen/cage. Keep items such as litter trays and food bowls separate from the equipment from the main homing centre’s pens/cages
  • Wash hands and change PPE, if wearing, between handling each cat. Handle cats from positive households last
  • If these cats show signs of illness – use barrier nursing and contact the veterinarian as usual, tell the veterinarian its history and take veterinary advice
  1. ‘Contactless’ adoptions

It may be possible to continue to do some virtual or ‘contactless’ adoptions. These take place with no direct contact between the adopter and the homing centre staff (or foster carer) as follows:

  • The potential adopter ‘meets’ the cat virtually by looking at photos, videos and details online
  • Arrange for an initial interview to take place via telephone or video call
  • Adoption questionnaire, paperwork and payment all completed online
  • Arrange for the adopter to visit to collect the cat or you deliver, dependent on the lockdown guidelines in your particular country
  • Handover takes place while adhering to social distancing guidelines
  • Wash hands thoroughly after touching the cat carrier, if it is provided by the new owner
  1. Other possible consequences

Organisations have been worried that misinformation about cats and coronavirus may encourage people to abandon cats, or for municipalities to cull cats.  While this may have been seen in places, the largest anticipated problem could well be people abandoning cats because of economic problems following loss of earnings. Some countries have been including pet food in food bank supplies to help people to keep their pets.

The lack of neutering in this period, of course, is bringing the likelihood of large numbers of unwanted kittens which may be presented or left at homing centres. Some homing centres are providing neutering vouchers to be used at private veterinary practices when possible because they cannot undertake neutering themselves.

  1. Look after yourself

Stay in touch with others doing the same work locally via Skype / Facetime / social media – everyone is in the same boat. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Good mental health is really important at times of uncertainty. Do the best you can under the circumstances – there will be much work to do catching up when systems return to normal – spend some time planning how you might do that.

Useful websites for updates on COVID-19:

WSAVA Coronavirus hub

The American Veterinary Medical Association

International Society for Companion Animal Infectious Diseases

ICAM The International Companion Animal Management Coalition

The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement

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