Civet Cats and the SARS Virus Found in China

When a "Cat" is Not a Cat

Civet cat
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In 2003, researchers in the southern part of China detected coronaviruses closely related to the SARS virus in three wild animal species, including the civet "cat," which are sold in markets there for food consumption. The coronaviruses were found in the masked palm civet, a tree-dwelling animal with a raccoon or weasel-like face and a catlike body; and the raccoon dog. The third species, a Chinese ferret badger, was found to produce antibodies to the SARS virus.

Civet Cats as Delicacies

These wild animals are considered great delicacies in China and are bred there for human consumption. Kept in squalid surroundings, stacked cage upon cage, they can be found in markets throughout southern China. While it has been thought that the virus could have been transmitted by food handlers, this discovery left several questions unanswered, according to the World Health Organization:

  • Did these wild animals infect the food handlers or vice versa?
  • Can the virus be spread animal-to-animal, by eating infected prey?
  • How widespread is the SARS infection in food animals? (The tests involved only the wild animals from one market.)
  • Can the virus be transmitted to humans from the eating of an infected animal?

The WHO on Civet Cats and SARS in China

According to an article on the WHO website, "Much more research is needed before any firm conclusions can be reached. At present, no evidence exists to suggest that these wild animal species play a significant role in the epidemiology of SARS outbreaks. However, it cannot be ruled out that these animals might have been a source of human infection." 

Of particular interest is the fact that the first outbreaks in Guandong province came shortly after the Chinese began importing civets for food from Vietnam. Hong Kong already outlaws the use of these animals as a food source. To mitigate the possibility that the virus actually is transmitted by palm civets and the other wild animals tested, the World Health Organization recommended proper sanitation safeguards in handling animals used for food, along with fully cooking the meat before consumption, as the virus cannot withstand the heat used in thorough cooking.

Since the first outbreaks of SARS in Guandong province of China, scientists from WHO have suspected some sort of animal-human link of the coronavirus. The mutation of a virus strain from animals, allowing it to jump to humans, is a common cause of new illnesses in humans. The test food animals were taken from markets in Shenzhen, Guandong, and included 25 animals, representing eight species. All six civet cats were found to have the SARS virus. Animals found to test negative included the Chinese hare, Chinese muntjack (a type of deer), beaver, and domestic cats.

What Exactly Is the Civet Cat?

The civet is a mostly nocturnal animal, from the Viverridae family, found in Africa and the East Indies. It is approximately 17-28 inches in length, excluding its long tail, and weighs about 3 to 10 pounds. Although classified within the Carnivera order, the palm civet of Southern Asia (named because it can be found in palms), is a fruit-eating mammal. Although the Viverridae family is distantly related to the Felidae family of which the common domestic cat is a member, the civet "cat" is not a cat. Indeed, it is more related to the mongoose than to any cat.

The civet is a cunning-looking little animal, with a catlike body, long legs, a long tail, and a masked face resembling a raccoon or weasel.

In some areas of the world, it has become an endangered species, hunted for its fur or as a food source. The civet's taste for fruit has been its downfall in at least one area of southeast Asia; as early as the 18th century, the durian fruit was also called "civet fruit," because it was used as bait for catching civets.

Civet Diet and Natural Habitat

The civet not only is fond of fruit but has had a love-hate relationship with growers of a particular coffee bean in Vietnam. Civets love this bean and search out the tastiest examples with their long, foxlike nose. The hardest beans survive the digestive process of the civet and are prized in caphe cut chon, or fox-dung coffee (Vietnamese call the civet a "fox").

Unfortunately for the civets, their habitat has been razed for new coffee orchards, and their decline has furthered because of the Vietnamese appetite for barbecued civet meat.

A restauranteur admitted that he was not troubled by the scarcity of Caphe cut chon, saying that he'd rather "eat the fox." Actually, the new scarcity of fox-dung coffee beans has been a boon for entrepreneurs who market fake caphe cut chon as the real thing. However, that doesn't help the fate of the civet cats who are killed for food.

Last, the civet has been the source of a highly-valued musk which is used as a stabilizing agent in perfumes. Although civets were at one time killed for their musk, they more recently have been "recycled" for this purpose. Also called "civet," excretions are scraped from the civet's perineal glands, a painful process. Both male and female cats produce these strong-smelling excretions. At least one civet cat farmer in Ethiopia raises civets for their musk, although this practice is dying out as perfumers move toward using synthetic fixatives.

Maligned, abused, and beleaguered, the civet cat has an unknown future on many fronts.

But it is not a cat.