Even the rumor that pets could transmit the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus led people to abandon their dogs and cats in the streets in some regions, as the BBC reported. What if a zoonotic disease erupted that could spread from pets to people and vice versa? The World Health Organization (WHO) prepared for just that scenario with a simulation exercise in 2017, one of an annual series of drills called Exercise Crystal.
WHO doctors used the exercise to test the outbreak responses of 30 countries and area in the Western Pacific region. The simulation supposed that a previously unknown illness began spreading among cats. Meanwhile, cat owners and veterinarians also start reporting flu-like symptoms to their doctors. By the end of the hypothetical outbreak, cat flu had infected hundreds of people in participants’ own countries and spread internationally.
“While a scenario involving pet cats initially seems absurd, it is actually not too far from the truth,” WHO official Dr. Masaya Kato said on the agency’s website. “Zoonotic diseases—that is, diseases which are transmitted between animals and humans—are something we have to prepare for. Some recent examples have been avian influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome and plague. We wanted participants to think through what they would do if faced with such a scenario. Do they know how to reach their animal health counterparts? And do they know when and how to notify WHO?”
While the WHO examined how health officials would react, I don’t think they examined the social effect. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, people tended to adopt pets to keep them company while staying home to avoid transmitting the disease. Overall, pet food sales surged then dropped during the first months of the pandemic, but ultimately seem resilient, since people will always have to feed their pets. Quite the opposite might happen if a cat flu broke out. If people were afraid that their fur baby could infect their real baby or themselves with a deadly novel disease, the pet food industry would find itself in a very different situation than in the current pandemic.