Frost Science@Home: The Latest on Animals and COVID-19

Our resident Frost Science veterinarian, Dr. Kristen Dubé, aka Dr. K, has provided us with a further update on what is now known about animals and COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Dr. Dubé, along with the rest of our dedicated animal husbandry team, are continuing to follow the science behind the virus to make sure our animals receive the appropriate care they need.

What is now known about animals and COVID-19?

Dr. Kristen Dubé, Veterinarian, Frost Science:

The range of animals that can contract any virus is called the “host range” of the virus. It has been discovered that the COVID-19 virus can only interact with certain susceptible species depending on “receptors” in the respiratory tract (nose, throat and lungs).

If the correct receptors aren’t present in the animal’s body, then the virus can’t attach and interact with the animal’s cells, and be activated to cause illness. In new research of this disease, early studies have shown that besides people, in a controlled lab setting, certain other mammal species may have the receptors needed for COVID-19 to attach.

Having the right receptor doesn’t mean an animal will get sick from or spread the disease; it just means there is a place for the virus to attach and possibly activate. Initial results show that ferrets and cats are two types of animals that have these receptors. This only indicates that these animals can possibly catch the disease, and there is no evidence that any animal can spread the disease to humans. Humans remain the best host for COVID-19 as the virus has adapted on a genetic level to infect and spread between people, and in certain cases cause significant illness.

What new information is known about COVID-19 in zoo and exotic animals?

Dr. Dubé: In early April, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This is the first zoo animal to test positive for this virus in the US. The tiger showed mild signs of a respiratory illness (coughing) and was tested to determine the cause of its illness.

More recently an African lion from this zoo was tested positive, as well as 2 other lions and 4 tigers. All of these animals are reported to be doing well and acting normally. Tests were developed that first used the animal’s feces to determine if they had the virus, and then were confirmed at a designated veterinary lab. COVID-19 testing on animals is done at a specific veterinary lab, and does not use the same reagents/materials that are used in human testing.

A few days ago a small number of mink, animals that are related to ferrets, tested positive for the virus at a facility in the Netherlands after showing respiratory signs. Ferrets are also known to be able to contract other respiratory diseases from humans, such as the influenza virus.

How did the big cats and mink get COVID-19 and can it be spread to the other zoo animals?

Dr. Dubé: Public health officials believe the tiger became sick after being exposed to a zoo employee that was infected with COVID-19, but was unaware they had the disease and not showing symptoms. Early investigations reveal the same situation has occurred in the case of the mink. Other than the cats in the same exhibit as the tiger, animals in other areas of the zoo remain healthy and are not showing any signs of disease.

Animal care staff at the zoo have enhanced their biosecurity protocols and are wearing appropriate personal protective gear around animals that may be susceptible to COVID-19, including nondomestic cats and great apes. Despite primates being very close genetically to humans, there have been no reports of primates in zoos or in the wild contracting COVID-19.

Zoo staff, the CDC, and other US government agencies are continuing to monitor the situation at the NY zoo for any changes.

Can animals at Frost Science or pets become sick with COVID-19?

Dr. Dubé: Fortunately, as shown in recent research regarding the virus host range, this disease can only infect certain mammals, and so cannot cause illness in the diverse species seen at Frost Science.

Despite the global number of COVID-19 cases surpassing 3 million, there are only confirmed cases of 2 dogs and 1 cat in Hong Kong that have tested positive for COVID-19, several mink in Europe, and 2 domestic cats and several nondomestic cats in the US. In the past few days one dog has also tested positive in the US, but interestingly other pets in the same house tested negative for COVID-19. Of the pets confirmed positive, only the 2 cats in NY and the dog were showing any signs of respiratory illness, and in all of the animals it was mild.

Infectious disease experts and multiple international and domestic human and animal health organizations continue to agree there is no current evidence to indicate that pets or other domestic animals including livestock, can spread COVID-19 to people.

Are there any other precautions pet owners should take to help protect their animals from this virus?

Dr. Dubé: Until more is known about this virus, any person that tests positive for COVID-19 should restrict their contact with pets just as they would restrict their contact with people. If contact is necessary, masks should be worn when near animals just as would be done around people, and hand washing is important before and after any contact.

Although it has become more important for humans to wear masks, they should not be placed on pets. It could potentially compromise their breathing and cause them to overheat. All people, even those without signs of respiratory illness, should also always continue to practice good hygiene (including hand washing) when interacting with and handling animals.

Keeping cats indoors will prevent them from contacting someone that potentially has the virus. When walking dogs on a leash, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other animals or people. Social distancing is important for animals too. If your pet is showing signs of illness and has been exposed to a person that has tested positive with COVID-19, contact your veterinarian and inform them of their condition before taking them to be examined. They will advise you of the next steps to take.

Even if a pet has been exposed to COVID-19 , there are many other more common illnesses in animals that will cause a pet to become sick. Human diseases and outbreaks such as COVID-19 are driven by person-to-person transmission. As shown by the very small numbers of animals that have so far contracted and tested positive for COVID-19 even when in close contact with humans, it is still considered an extremely uncommon disease in animals. Remember pets and people need the support of each other to help get through this crisis.

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