The Kent coronavirus variant may be linked to heart problems in cats and dogs, a preliminary scientific study has suggested.
Cats and dogs have been known to be infected with other variants, but largely suffered respiratory symptoms such as coughing, sneezing or a runny nose.
The vets behind the study called on pet owners not to worry unnecessarily but said more research was needed.
The researchers write in their study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed: "We report a sudden increased number of domestic dogs and cats presented with myocarditis at the Cardiology Department of The Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre (RVRC), based on the outskirts of London (UK), between December 2020 and February 2021, with an unexpected rise in incidence from 1.4 to 12.8 percent."
The pre-print study is available on BioRXiv.
The researchers write: "This sudden surge of cases appeared to mimic the curve and timeline of the COVID-19 human pandemic in the UK due to the B117 variant, starting in mid-December 2020, peaking at the end of January 2021, before returning to the historical rate by mid-February 2021."
The B117 variant was first detected in Britain in September 2020, and has since also been found in more than 100 other countries.
It has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively high number – and some of them have made it about 40%-70% more transmissible than previous dominant variants that were circulating.
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Lead researcher Luca Ferasin, a cardiologist at the Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre (RVRC) in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, told The Guardian: “We don’t want to spread panic unnecessarily, especially because at the moment we have a strong suspicion of transmission from human to pet, but not vice versa, and we don’t know this for sure.
"But vets ought to be aware of this so that they can start testing if they suspect a potential case of COVID infection.”
The researchers collected samples from six cats and one dog, as well as blood samples from another two cats and two dogs.
They found that most of the owners and handlers of the pets had had COVID symptoms three to six weeks before the pets became ill, ScienceAlert reports.
The researchers write: "Given this coincidence and the intriguing simultaneous evolution of myocarditis in these pets and the B117 COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, we decided to investigate SARS-CoV-2 infection in these animals.”
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