House cats and ferrets can get the SARS virus and can probably pass it on to us. This makes sense given that the virus originated with civet cats in China, before it jumped to humans. Disease expert Robert Shope says, “You might want to quarantine the pets as well as the people.”

But housecats didn’t play a direct role in the recent SARS epidemics, despite the fact that infected cats were found in a Hong Kong apartment complex where there was a SARS epidemic last year. “These animals in all likelihood did not play a significant role in spread of (SARS) to humans,” says Dr. Klaus Stohr, the World Health Organization’s chief SARS scientist.

Since SARS started out in cats, it’s not a surprise that housecats are susceptible to the virus, but ferrets are another matter. Researcher Albert D.M.E. Osterhaus says, “Cats and ferrets are only distantly related, so this demonstrates the promiscuous nature of the virus.” In China, where SARS got started, markets are still selling exotic raccoon-dogs, ferret badgers and civets that have been found harboring a virus that’s almost identical to SARS. They weren’t sold during the epidemic, but are now for sale again, meaning the epidemic could get started again as well.

Learn how to hunt ghosts from Joshua P. Warren and how to ward off vampires from Konstantinos, this week on Screamland.

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