Cats share many ailments with humans — and they could share cures

Final test results aren’t in yet on the nine big cats at the Smithsonian National Zoo that tested “presumptive positive” for COVID-19 last Friday, but a zoo spokeswoman said on Monday that the tigers are less affected and the lions still have symptoms including decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing and lethargy.

“As with humans, symptoms fluctuate. Needless to say, our animal care team of great cat keepers and veterinarians is on top of it and closely monitoring throughout the day,” Pamela Baker-Masson said.

COVID-19 isn’t the only condition that can affect cats and humans alike.

“Being that we share 90% of our genes, we’re going to have 90% of the same health problems,” said Leslie A. Lyons, a professor of feline genetics at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri.

Conditions that can affect both species include Duchene muscular dystrophy, Tay-Sachs disease and polycystic kidney disease — one of the most common inherited diseases in humans.

“Cats have that, and so they’re a better model than mice are for studying polycystic kidney disease. Cats also have retinal degenerations blindnesses that are very similar to humans, if not the same gene and same mutation as well,” she said.

People might associate mice more typically with research studies, but Lyons said with any gene that’s found in mice, cats or humans, the cats will be more similar to humans.

Lyons’ research has identified dozens of genetic mutations in domestic cats. Her laboratory is working to develop drug and gene therapies that could be helpful to multiple species.

“We might find a better treatment in a cat and then apply it to humans. Or we might have a good treatment in humans or a dog and apply it to a cat,” Lyons said. “I’d say we’ve probably saved more cats from health problems than most veterinarians have in their careers, because we’ve prevented them through genetic testing from being born in the first place.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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