Earlier this week, news broke of a tiger in the Bronx Zoo showing symptoms of the Coronavirus. The tiger, a 4-year-old Malayan tiger named Nadia, appeared visibly sick by March 27. Upon further investigation, it has been confirmed that this tiger has contracted the virus, as well as many other feline friends who are beginning to show symptoms. “This is the first instance of a tiger being infected with COVID-19,” said the federal Agriculture Department, which noted that although only one tiger was tested, the virus appeared to have infected other animals as well. This department claims that several other lions and tigers are continuing to show signs of respiratory illnesses but are luckily expected to recover.
Officials believe that the big cat became infected through “human to cat transmission” through contact with an infected zoo employee. According to Dr. Paul Calle, chief veterinarian at the Bronx Zoo, “that’s the assumption, that one of the keepers who was asymptomatic or shedding the virus before they were sick was the source of the infection.” While the zookeepers generally keep a barrier between themselves and the cats, they do get within a few feet of the animals, causing them to not strictly follow the “social distancing” guidelines that are recommended.
The tiger’s sister, Azul, and two Amur tigers are also sick. They live in the zoo’s Tiger Mountain enclosure along with the infected animal. Fortunately, another tiger that lives in the same place has “not exhibited any clinical signs,” according to a statement by the zoo. The zoo has also released that they do not believe that any animals in other parts of the zoo are exhibiting symptoms. Lyndsay M. Cole, assistant director of public affairs for the department’s animal and plant inspection service, has also assured us that there have been no reports of sickened animals in any other zoos in the United States.
While it might be easy to look in from the outside and want to require distance between animals and people, zoos are not exactly in the same boat as restaurants or movie theatres that can just shut down. Animals still need to be cared for and checked on frequently, like penguin chicks might require help after they hatch or captive tigers, alligators and grizzly bears need to be monitored and not left without care. “The animals that we care for rely on us for everything,” Jim Breheny, the director of the Bronx Zoo, said last week before the coronavirus case had been confirmed.
All of this begs the question of whether or not cats and dogs can contract the Coronavirus. A pet cat in Belgium recently tested positive for the Coronavirus but the American Veterinary Medical Association said that not enough was known to change the current view that neither cats nor dogs appear to be able to pass the virus to people. Additionally, a scientific study in China, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found that the virus reproduces “efficiently” in cats and can be transmitted by respiratory droplets, but this was in laboratory conditions. The report also did not clarify what kind of symptoms the cats experienced, if any. The World Organization for Animal Health says that there is no evidence that cats or dogs spread the disease to humans, but that anyone who is sick should take precautions in contact with their animals as they would with people. “If you are sick with COVID-19, avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food,” the department said.