Zika is a hot topic in the news. Search for it on the web and you’ll find headlines including “Zika outbreak now global emergency,” “Brazil issues Olympics warning as WHO declares Zika emergency,” and “CDC: Major challenges ahead in Zika fight.”
Many news outlets are carrying stories on Zika, as are many people’s Facebook feeds. It’s scary. And when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no cure yet, thoughts instinctively turn toward loved ones, including our pets.
Can cats get Zika? Are they less vulnerable to Zika than humans? Are they more vulnerable? Here’s what we know.
Zika is a virus discovered in the late 1940s. It’s usually transmitted through a mosquito bite. Scientists suspect — but haven’t proven — that it’s responsible for a birth defect called microcephaly, a condition where a human baby is born with an abnormally small head. It’s characterized by babies whose brain development was stopped short early in the mother’s pregnancy. Brain size is reduced to as little as one third its original volume, which this can translate to severe mental impairment.
So far, all we have is correlation, not causation. But connecting Zika to the parent of a child who suffers from microcephaly is easy to do, and many scientists assume it’s only a matter of time before they find a definite link.
Microcephaly shows up predominantly in primates, although there is genetic evidence that a microcephalus location (or locus) exists in the DNA of non-primates such as the domestic cat and might play a part in the natural determination of the size of a dog or cat’s brain.
Probably not. As responsible pet owners, our four-legged friends are spayed and neutered, thus discounting the concern over offspring having smaller-than-normal brains. Contracting the Zika virus itself is probably not life-threatening. In humans, Zika symptoms manifest as fever, lethargy, aches, red eyes, and sometimes a rash (though that last symptom may prove a bit difficult to spot in a cat). Most recover within a week, and though the illness is uncomfortable and flu-like, it’s not devastating to the one who contracts it — just to future offspring, scientists suspect.
So if you’re a breeder, if your cat is not spayed or neutered, proceed with caution. There are at least two scientific reports that showed microcephaly in the fetuses of cows and sheep who were experimentally injected with the Zika virus prior to gestation.
The fact is, we simply don’t know how Zika impacts our pets — or if they can transmit the disease to other animals — because no studies on them have yet been done.
Zika is transmitted most commonly through the bite of a mosquito bite — and not the exotic, third-world variety, either. They’re critters an entomologist at Rutgers called “urban, domestic mosquitoes,” the kind you find in your own backyard.
Unfortunately, it is very hard to protect our pets from mosquito bites. And though the mosquito that carries Zika prefers to snack on humans, they can and do bite our pets, too.
These guys are really aggressive and hardy. They can hibernate for months and are so small they easily slip inside your home. The best precautions you can take are to remove standing water from around your home, as these are the places mosquitoes breed.
This will also help protect your cat against another potentially deadly disease: heartworm.
The most commonly used human mosquito repellent brands such as Off, Cutter, and 3M contain a chemical known as DEET. DEET is toxic to dogs and cats, and it takes very little grooming for a cat to ingest enough to do harm.
Be careful of natural home remedies as well, as many of them contain essential oils. These, too, have been known to be toxic to cats.
The two best things you can do to protect your cat from Zika is to keep your cats inside, and guard your neighborhood against any opportunities for mosquitoes to begin breeding.
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About Lisa Richman: Writer, director, pilot, foodie, cat person. When she’s not on set, this director of film and video can usually be found taking photos of cats (and food) with her trusty Nikon, or cruising aloft at 3,000 feet. She’s cat mom to an opinionated Tonkinese, a hearing-impaired Siamese, and a feline fashionista. She’s also the owner of a recently launched humor blog, and the Cat Writer’s 2014 Entertainment Blog, A Tonk’s Tail.