A Malayan tiger named Nadia at the Bronx Zoo started exhibiting a dry cough, one of the symptoms of COVID-19. Her sister Azul, two Amur tigers, and three African lions were also exhibiting dry coughs. After receiving permission from the local health department and animal health authorities, the zoo had a sample from Nadia tested at a veterinary school laboratory. The test returned positive.
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is the first animal case of COVID-19 in the United States and one of only a handful around the world. “We know from some experimental models that certain animal species are susceptible to the virus,” says Scott Weese, the chief of infection control at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College.
Currently, there is no conclusive evidence as to how Nadia contracted the virus, but there is concern that it was transmitted from a human. While it has yet to be proven, Weese says human-to-animal transmission could be possible.
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He points to a study conducted in Wuhan, China—ground zero for the virus—where researchers analyzed blood samples from cats after the outbreak. “They showed that 15 per cent of cats had antibodies to the virus, meaning they’d been exposed,” Weese says. A handful of dogs in Hong Kong also tested positive.
These cases don’t prove that the animals contracted the virus from humans, but they do prove that some pet species are susceptible. From what Weese has seen, the virus is rare in dogs, and “it doesn’t seem to be a health problem.” Cats and ferrets, on the other hand, seem to be more affected.
Due to a lack of animal testing, it’s difficult to say how many animal cases there are or how the animals will react to the virus. This is unlikely to change in the coming weeks. With test facilities working at capacity to process human samples, animal testing “is low on the priority list,” Weese says.
Regardless, you should be taking precautions with your pets. This includes keeping them inside as much as possible and walking them on a leash. If your household does have a case of COVID-19, these guidelines are even more important. While your pet may not be infected, it’s possible for them to carry the virus on their fur or collar. “If I’m infected and I sneeze on my cat, or I touch my nose and I touch my cat,” Weese says, “I’ve just put some virus on his hair coat.”
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There’s no definitive answer on how long the virus can live on your pet’s coat, but Weese estimates that it could be a couple hours. Either way, taking the extra precautions will keep you and your pet virus-free.
“It really is just doing the same things with animals that we do with people,” Weese says. “Try to reduce exposure.”
Please note as this situation is constantly evolving, information is constantly changing as research evolves. Check back for updates.