News & Politics

Bronx Zoo Tiger Infected with COVID-19 by Zookeeper. Could Your Cat or Dog Be at Risk?

Malayan Tiger (Image by Razlisyam Razali from Pixabay)

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced on Sunday that a Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo has tested positive for COVID-19, marking the first time a big cat is known to have been infected with the novel coronavirus.

“Nadia, a 4-year-old female Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo, has tested positive for COVID-19,” the WCS said in a press release. The USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, confirmed the positive COVID-19 test for Nadia.

In addition, Nadia’s sister Azul, two Amur tigers, and three African lions are being monitored after developing a dry cough.

“We tested the cat out of an abundance of caution and will ensure any knowledge we gain about COVID-19 will contribute to the world’s continuing understanding of this novel coronavirus,” the zoo said.

The cats have experienced a decreased appetite, but “are otherwise doing well under veterinary care and are bright, alert, and interactive with their keepers.”

No one knows at this point how the disease will progress in big cats, so the animals will be closely monitored, although the WCS anticipates a full recovery. All four WCS zoos have been closed since March 16.

“Our cats were infected by a person caring for them who was asymptomatically infected with the virus or before that person developed symptoms,” the press release stated. “Appropriate preventive measures are now in place for all staff who are caring for them, and the other cats in our four WCS zoos, to prevent further exposure of any other of our zoo cats.”

“It’s the first time, to our knowledge, that a [wild] animal has gotten sick from COVID-19 from a person,” Paul Calle, chief veterinarian for the Bronx Zoo, told National Geographic.

Calle said that the veterinary team at Bronx Zoo did a number of diagnostic tests and blood work when Nadia began to exhibit symptoms. “Considering what’s going on in New York City, we of course did the COVID testing,” he said. After sedating the big cat, samples were collected, which were sent to the New York State Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell University for testing.

Cella noted that the type of test used on Nadia is not the same type as those given to humans, “so there is no competition for testing between these very different situations.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can spread to people from the skin or fur of pets.” But according to National Geographic:

Several domestic animals had previously tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, including a Pomeranian and a German shepherd in Hong Kong, a domestic cat in Belgium.

Cats, both wild and domestic, are susceptible to feline coronavirus, but until recently, it was unknown whether they could contract SARS-CoV-2. A new Chinese study has found that cats may be able to infect each other, and scientists are rushing to learn what other species may be able to be infected by it.

As it appears big cats are able to catch the virus from humans, it’s very possible that our domestic felines and other pets may be susceptible as well.

At the time the CDC’s advisory was written, there had not yet been any reports of pets or other animals in the U.S. becoming sick with COVID-19. Now that it has crossed the barrier from humans to felines, the CDC’s recommendations are even more important: “If you are sick with COVID-19, avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food. If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with pets.”

“When possible, have another member of your household or business take care of feeding and otherwise caring for any animals, including pets,” says the CDC. “If you have a service animal or you must care for your animals, including pets, wear a cloth facemask; don’t pet, don’t share food, kiss, or hug them; and wash your hands before and after any contact with your pet or service animal. You should not share dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding with other people or pets in your home.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association says that while it “appears that dogs and cats are not readily infected” with COVID-19, out of an abundance of caution and until more is known about this virus, “you should restrict contact with pets and other animals, just as you would restrict your contact with other people” if you are infected.

“If you have a service animal or you must care for your animals, including pets, wear a cloth facemask; don’t pet, don’t share food, kiss, or hug them; and wash your hands before and after any contact with your pet or service animal,” the AVMA advises. “You should not share dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, or bedding with other people or pets in your home.”

Testing of domestic animals for COVID-19 is not currently recommended by the AVMA, CDC, or the USDA. Because the situation is evolving, the CDC says, “public and animal health officials may decide to test certain animals out of an abundance of caution.”

“We have only seen examples of two dogs and one cat in Hong Kong, and a tiger in New York, that had positive results of tests for infection,” the AVMA said. “There have been no reports of pets or livestock becoming ill with COVID-19 in the United States. At this point in time, there is also no evidence that domestic animals, including pets and livestock, can spread COVID-19 to people.”

However, according to a preprint of a research article posted online on March 30 at bioRxiv, there are some concerns that cats and ferrets “might be able to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and transmit the virus to other animals.” The research has not been peer-reviewed, so the AVMA urged caution in extrapolating from the results “to the potential for SARS-CoV-2 to naturally infect or be transmitted by companion animals kept as pets.” A second study found that cats tested in Wuhan after the discovery of the COVID-19 virus may have developed antibodies to the disease. “Nothing in these research articles provides conclusive evidence that cats, ferrets, or other domestic animals can be readily infected with SARS-CoV-2, nor do they demonstrate that cats, ferrets or other domestic animals transmit the virus under natural conditions,” the AVMA cautioned.

Until we know more, if you are infected with COVID-19, you should exercise the same caution with respect to your pets as you do toward human family members.

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