Gayle Nastasi, animal consultant and author
Under normal circumstances, when we humans have a virus, we can safely say that our pets won’t be affected. Human colds and flu don’t infect dogs, cats, or horses. Even the old suspicion that guinea pigs can catch a human cold turned out to be nothing but a superstition.
Now, it appears, we have met a foe that can be transmitted to animals. A news report has come to light that a number of tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo have fallen ill with respiratory symptoms. One of the tigers was tested, and found to be positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. Although, as of the time I’m writing this, the route of infection has not been confirmed, experts believe that one of the cats’ handlers was positive for the virus, even though they were not showing symptoms, and transmitted it to the cats.
COVID-19 is what is referred to as a zoonotic disease. It originated in animals, and a series of mutations allowed it to be passed across species barriers. Although the exact details are uncertain, it is believed that people were first exposed through a market in Wuhan, China, where exotic species of animal were sold as food. The original animal source of SARS-CoV-2 may have been bats, though that is not definite. A similar coronavirus, the cause of the original SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, was also found in bats, as well as civet cats. Since civets are felines, this may be a clue as to why lions and tigers would be susceptible to a related virus.
Zoonotic viruses are not terribly common, but they are often nasty when they show up. SARS, MERS, and Ebola are all zoonotic diseases. And, of course, everyone is familiar with the horror of disease horrors, Rabies. However, most of these viruses have not been shown to be easily transmitted from humans to other animals through casual contact. Or, at least, there do not seem to be many studies which have looked into that direction of transfer.
MERS-CoV, another coronavirus, was also found to originate in bats, and infected humans in Saudi Arabia, initially through contact with an intermediate host—dromedary camels. While it was known that camel to camel transmission was common, as was camel to human, and the secondary transfer of human to human became a serious problem, little seems to be known as to whether humans contributed to the spread of the virus in camels.
Fortunately, the big cats in the Bronx are doing well so far. They have upper respiratory symptoms, but are responding to treatment.
There have also been a handful of reports, from other countries, of dogs and cats testing positive, but so far studies are inconclusive as to the extent at which other species can contract or spread COVID-19. None of these animals was seriously ill, and there is no definite indication to date that our pets can transmit the virus to humans.
This is, however, a new virus. There are many unknowns. In the wake of the news story about the zoo cats, medical experts recommend that, if you are positive for COVID-19, you should limit contact with your pets, just as you would with humans. Let others do your pet care if possible, and minimize contact if not. Wash your hands before and after, and wear a mask while caring for your animals.
For me, and for many of you, I’m sure, this may be a hard burden to bear if quarantined for this coronavirus. When I was so very ill, all those years ago, the ability to hug and be close to my precious Kai was one of the things that pulled me through. I can’t imagine being closed in a room, isolated from my family, and not even being able to have Ryder or Missie by my side.
But, just as we are now wearing masks in public, and practicing social distancing according to the guidelines from the CDC, we will do what we must to protect our families—furry members, included.
Stay well, my friends. We are all in this together, even though we are facing unusual levels of separation.
Photo Credit: ©Gayle Nastasi, 1976, Jungle Habitat, New Jersey