A Tiger Caught COVID-19. That Doesn't Mean Your Cat Will Infect You

The danger appears to be from the other direction, you possibly infecting your pet

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A day after a zoo in New York announced a tiger had tested positive for the new coronavirus and other big cats there showed symptoms of COVID-19, vets say there are no cases of pets making people sick.

Pet owners worried their animals might be harboring the virus can take heart from this: There have been no recorded cases of pets making people sick.

“This is almost exclusively a human-to-human transmitted disease, and the risk to pets is very low, with only a handful of cases of the virus appearing in companion animals, and no cases of people getting sick from their pets,” said Michael San Filippo, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medicine Association.

In fact, the danger appears to be from the other direction — even though the coronavirus likely jumped from animals to humans from a bat, possibly through an intermediary animal.

Four dogs and cats that tested positive for the coronavirus were living with people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the association. A 4-year-old Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City appears to have been infected by a person caring for her, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced on April 5. Nadia, her sister, Azul, two Amur tigers and three African lions all developed a dry cough and all are expected to recover.

Only Naida was tested because anesthesia is needed for the procedure and her infection was confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratory, based in Ames, Iowa. The test is different from the one used for people, the zoo’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Paul Calle, told The Associated Press.

“Our cats were infected by a person caring for them who was asymptomatically infected with the virus or before that person developed symptoms,” the zoo said in a statement.

The cats are bright and alert, though their appetites decreased some, the zoo said. It is not known how the disease will develop in them because different species react differently to novel infections, but officials anticipate full recoveries, it said. 

Naida’s case is the first confirmed in any animal in the United States, and the first report of the virus in a tiger anywhere in the world, according to Lyndsay Cole, the assistant director for public affairs for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. 

Neither USDA nor the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention have received any reports of possible cases in pets in the United States, Cole said.

“Because this is the first case of its kind, we are still learning more about this virus and how it spreads,” Cole said. “We do not know exactly how the illness spread to each of the tigers and lions. We know that the tigers and lions only showed mild respiratory signs like dry coughs and wheezing, but we don’t know the specifics of how the virus might differ in the way it affects those animals versus humans.”

The first outbreak of the disease caused by the new coronavirus, COVID-19, occurred in Hubei province in China, late last year.

Since then two dogs and two cats — three in Hong Kong and one in Belgium - have tested positive for the virus. The first report came from Hong Kong in late February. The dog, reportedly a Pomeranian belonging to a 60-year-old woman who tested positive for the virus, had no symptoms. Hong Kong government officials said it was likely that it was a case of human-to-animal transmission.

It was quarantined and was returned to its owner once it tested negative, but later died. The Hong Kong government announced at the time that it would quarantine all dogs, cats and other domesticated animals if their owners tested positive for COVID-19.

A spokesperson for the World Health Organization said at the time that based on its experience with coronaviruses and its current understanding of COVID-19, it did not think common pets were spreading the disease or making people sick.

Pet animals pose other dangers to people much more readily. The CDC recommends that pregnant women, for example, avoid changing cat litter because cats can carry a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, a disease that can cause birth defects. Pregnant women should avoid contact with pet rodents to prevent exposure to lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, which also can cause birth defects.

And the risk from people without symptoms passing on the coronavirus to other humans has become more evident as the pandemic rages on. The World Health Organization said Monday that the virus can spread in asymptomatic patients about one to three days before symptoms start. Even talking can spread the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

"We are still learning about this virus, but we know that it is zoonotic and it appears that it can spread from people to animals in some situations," the CDC website said Monday in a section about pets that noted the New York tiger's confirmed case of the coronavirus. "CDC is working with human and animal health partners to monitor this situation and will continue to provide updates as information becomes available. Further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19."

The CDC and the American Veterinary Medical Association recommend that you restrict your contact with pets if you become ill. Try to have someone else care for them but if you must wear a cloth face mask, don’t share food, kiss, or hug them, and wash your hands before and after any contact with them.

"Although there have been no reports of pets becoming sick with COVID-19 in the United States, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus," the CDC says. "This can help ensure both you and your animals stay healthy."

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