Big cats at St. Louis Zoo test positive for coronavirus

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Eight large cats at the St. Louis Zoo recently tested positive for the coronavirus, the first reported outbreak among animals at the Forest Park attraction.

Zoo keepers tested all animals in the Big Cat Country habitat after a few developed colds. Like humans, several tested positive but had no symptoms. Other cats have upper respiratory infections. Caretakers are treating her symptoms, zoo officials said.

Zoo officials expect the lions, jaguars, leopards, tigers, and cougars to make a full recovery.

Zoo Health Director Sathya Chinnadurai attributes the cats’ positive prognosis to the COVID-19 vaccinations the cats received earlier this fall.

“The vaccinated cats seem very similar to humans in order to build the immune response and fight off the infection,” he said. “So in this case, all of these cats had at least one vaccine against the coronavirus.”

It is likely that the cats got the virus from an asymptomatic human carrier. It’s not uncommon for animals in the zoo to get viruses from people they are in close contact with, Chinnadurai said.

Zoo workers can test animals with nasal swabs similar to those used in humans, he said. But that requires zookeepers to calm the cats down first. Instead, zookeepers test the animals’ feces to find out if they have contracted the coronavirus.

If the cats hadn’t been vaccinated, they would have been much sicker or could have died, Chinnadurai said. Across the country, several animals that were infected with the coronavirus before vaccinations were available became seriously ill with respiratory symptoms.

“The first cases seen in zoos were actually tigers and since then all tigers, snow leopards and lions have been reported,” Chinnadurai said. “Big cats seem to be more prone to the disease than other species.”

Because of this, big cats, along with other carnivorous mammals like hyenas and monkeys, were the first to receive the vaccine in October, he said. Veterinarians and scientists are speaking to other zoos across the country to keep track of which animals contract the coronavirus and use the information to guide which animals could benefit from vaccination.

Scientists tested other animals in the zoo, but it appears the outbreak didn’t spread beyond the cats.

“At the zoo, we are incredibly lucky that they were able to work with the animal health team to vaccinate so many of our animals,” said Chinnadurai. “That helped us a lot.”

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