Tiger infected with coronavirus: Can animals, pets spread COVID-19?

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A tiger at an American zoo has tested positive for coronavirus, becoming the first animal to be identified as having the virus in the US and challenging previous claims that the COVID-19 coronavirus could only be found in humans.

The tiger was tested after it fell ill alongside six other tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo in New York. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is responsible for veterinary services, confirmed that the animal tested positive for the virus and suggested it had caught the virus from a human employee at the zoo.

The case prompted the USDA to release a statement reassuring pet owners that there is currently no evidence that animals can spread the virus. But it also advised COVID-19 patients from staying clear of animals in case they infect them, suggesting the New York tiger is not a one-off case.

Here is everything to know about coronavirus and animals.

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An Indian tiger rests in a pool of water. (File photo: AFP)
An Indian tiger rests in a pool of water. (File photo: AFP)

Have other animals caught coronavirus?

The New York tiger is the first case of an animal catching COVID-19 that has generated international headlines.

However, other cases had previously been reported around the world.

The CDC said it is aware of a “very small number of pets outside the United States reported to be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 after close contact with people with COVID-19.”

In early March, Hong Kong authorities reported a pet dog belonging to a coronavirus patient had tested positive for the virus on February 28, according to the South China Morning Post. The 17-year-old Pomeranian was then quarantined from February 26 to March 14 and released back home after it tested negative.

However, the dog then died on March 16, according to the dog’s owner via Live Science. The exact cause of death is unknown.

Authorities in Hong Kong also claimed that a German shepherd had tested positive for the disease.

More recently, reports from Belgium suggested that a pet cat had been infected. Following testing, the country’s FPS Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment service confirmed in a press conference that the cat had been infected by a human.

“The cat recovered after nine days,” Steven Van Gucht, virologist and federal spokesperson for the coronavirus epidemic in Belgium, told Live Science.

“We think the cat is a side victim of the ongoing epidemic in humans and does not play a significant role in the propagation of the virus,” he added.

Can animals spread coronavirus to humans?

There is currently no evidence that animals can spread coronavirus to people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"There isn't a single case of a pet dog or cat infecting a human with Covid-19," Dr Angel Almendros, from City University in Hong Kong, told BBC News.

There are indications that the COVID-19 outbreak originated when a coronavirus-infected horseshoe bat infected a human, probably via an intermediary species, in a wet-market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

However, experts are still unsure about the exact origins of the virus and may never know. A widely circulated video which suggested a woman eating a bat was the source of the virus has since been debunked as fake news.

“We do not know the exact source of the current outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The first infections were linked to a live animal market, but the virus is now spreading from person to person,” says the CDC website.

“At this time, there is no evidence to suggest that any animals, including pets or livestock, can spread COVID-19 infection to people,” says the USDA.

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Can humans spread coronavirus to animals?

Yes, according to the USDA, that concluded the tiger at the Bronx Zoo was infected by an employee at the zoo.

The USDA has therefore warned people with COVID-19 to avoid animals and pets.

However, there have been very few confirmed cases of humans spreading coronavirus to animals so far, suggesting it only occurs rarely.

What should I do if I have pets?

The CDC gives the following advice for pet owners on its website:
• Wash your hands after handling animals, their food, waste, or supplies.
• Practice good pet hygiene and clean up after pets properly.
• Talk to your veterinarian if you have questions about your pet’s health.

Given there is no evidence that animals can spread the virus to humans, officials said that pet owners should not worry about their animals as a source of infection.

“It’s important to assure pet owners and animal owners that at this time there isn’t any evidence that they can spread the virus,” Dr. Jane Rooney, a veterinarian and a USDA official, told Bloomberg.

What should I do if I think my animal has the virus?

The USDA advises anyone with a pet showing symptoms of illness to call their veterinary clinic and speak to a qualified professional. It notes that the vet should be informed if the animal was exposed to anyone sick with COVID-19.

If I have COVID-19, can I spend time with my pets?

The USDA recommends that people ill with COVID-19 avoid animals in case they transmit the illness to their pet.

“Although there have not been 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,” it advises.

“When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick. If you are sick with COVID-19, avoid contact with your pet, including petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food.”

If a sick person must be around animals, they should wash their hands before and after interacting, the organization added.

Will animals be tested more often now?

Currently, neither CDC nor the USDA recommends routine testing animals for the virus.

Information: USDA – Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, CDC, Live Science.

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