Bronx Zoo tiger tests positive for COVID-19


A small group of big cats in New York appears to have been infected with the novel coronavirus by an asymptomatic zoo employee. Here’s what happened—and what it means for cat owners.

Image caption: Nadia, the Malayan tiger that tested positive for COVID-19 (courtesy of he Wildlife Conservation Society)

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York has tested positive for COVID-19, according to a statement released yesterday by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which manages the zoo. The 4-year-old Malayan tiger named Nadia was among a group of several big cats at the zoo to show mild signs of respiratory illness in late March.

This marks the first known animal case of COVID-19 in the United States and the first in a tiger. Two pet dogs and one pet cat overseas have also tested positive in recent weeks for the virus that causes COVID-19.

What happened

Public health officials believe that seven tigers and lions became infected following interaction with an asymptomatic zoo caretaker who was actively shedding virus. The test for Nadia was conducted at the New York State Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell University and confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratory.

“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 WCS statement reads.

The big cats were showing mild signs of respiratory illness late last week, but only one animal was selected for testing because collecting a sample via nasopharyngeal swab in tigers requires general anesthesia. All of the affected cats are reportedly doing well and expected to make full recoveries. No other animals at the zoo are showing signs of respiratory illness.

How does testing work?

Generally speaking, Dr. Chatfield says, the test used to detect severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus type 2 (SARS-CoV-2)—the virus that causes COVID-19—in animals is the same as that used in humans.

The real-time reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is not dependent on the subject being tested. “Rather, it’s dependent on the virus you’re looking for,” Dr. Chatfield says. “So, [the test] looks for a little piece of viral RNA in this case, because COVID-19 is an RNA virus, and amplifies the quantity of virus present to the point that it can then be detected with another test.”

It is important to keep in mind, Dr. Chatfield says, that just because a person or animal tests PCR positive does not mean they have the disease. “PCR indicates the presence of the viral material but not necessarily the viability of the virus itself.”

What does this mean for pet owners?

dvm360 spoke with Jennifer Chatfield, DVM, DACZM, ACVPM, staff veterinarian at 4J Conservation Center in Dade City, Florida, and a regional commander for the National Disaster Medicine System Team, about what all this means for pet parents, particularly cat owners.

“We already know that pet cats can become infected with SARS-CoV-2 [based on findings in other countries],” says Dr. Chatfield, who also teaches courses for FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, “so the fact that a giant cat has tested positive is not super shocking.”

Like the AVMA, USDA, CDC and many global health organizations, however, Dr. Chatfield reiterates that, to date, there is zero evidence that pets can transmit COVID-19 to people.

“The only thing we have seen have been sporadic cases of pets with positive test results, but most of them have had no clinical signs,” she says. “If you are COVID-19 positive you could potentially infect your dog or cat, but we have zero evidence at this point that your pet can transmit the disease to you. So, there is no reason to give up your pet.”

For pet owners who are worried about this evolving situation, Dr. Chatfield advises following the recommended precautions until more is known about this virus. For pet owners who test positive for COVID-19:

  • Restrict contact with pets and other animals while you are sick with COVID-19, just as you would with other people.
  • When possible, have someone else take care of feeding and otherwise caring for your pet.
  • If you have a service animal or you must care for your pet yourself, wear a cloth facemask; don’t share food, kiss or hug them; and wash your hands before and after any contact with them.

Pet owners who are not ill with COVID-19 can interact with their pets as normal and should continue to practice good hygiene before and after those interactions:

  • Wash hands before and after interacting with your pet, including when handling food, supplies, and waste.
  • Ensure your pet is kept clean.
  • Regularly wash your pet’s food and water bowls, bedding material, and toys.

“What we know about COVID-19 transmission right now is that most of it is happening human to human,” Dr. Chatfield says. “Fomites could play a role because we now know that the virus can survive for limited times in the environment.”

In the video below, Dr. Chatfield shares more details about the affected zoo anim with dvm360's Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Adam Christman. She also reassures pet owners that there is there is no need to relinquish pet cats and dogs.

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