Lions, Tigers, Domestic Cats, and COVID-19: How Do We Educate Pet Owners?
Veterinary teams are working diligently to recognize and allay anxiety in pet owners during the global coronavirus pandemic. They recognize fear and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 in their clients and are grappling with pet owners’ concern that their pets may contract or spread the new coronavirus to humans.
Veterinary teams have been educating pet owners that there currently is no evidence indicating the spread of the COVID-19 virus from pets to other animals or humans, based on the guidance of infectious disease experts along with U.S. and global human and animal health organizations.
On April 5, the Bronx Zoo announced that one Malayan tiger tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, after showing symptoms of a cough and decreased appetite.¹ The USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories ran the test and confirmed the presence of SARS-CoV-2.
One other Malayan tiger, 2 Amur tigers, and 3 African lions also were showing respiratory symptoms. However, only the one tiger was tested, as the testing process in lions and tigers involves general anesthesia.
It is believed by public health officials that a zoo employee who was actively shedding virus exposed the large cats, and in turn they became ill. The Bronx Zoo has been closed to the public since March 16. The first tiger reportedly began showing signs of sickness on March 27. The good news? The lions and tigers are all expected to recover, and no evidence has been seen to indicate any other animals in the zoo are showing symptoms.¹
What does this mean for veterinary teams focusing on companion animals? More questions from nervous owners.
We are all stressed and anxious. Information is coming at us fast and furious. As medical professionals, we understand the science—but most pet owners do not. We need to remember to educate pet owners in a calm and professional manner. They are scared—for their pets, for themselves, for their families.
I recognize that we are feeling this too. But helping pet owners, and in reality pets themselves, is why we went into veterinary medicine in the first place.
Here are a few questions I anticipate pet owners will ask, along with information to date to help answer in a factual manner.
Common Questions from Pet Owners About the New Coronavirus
1. If animals (especially felines) can contract the virus, can they pass it back to people?
Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that pets, livestock, or zoo animals can spread the COVID-19 virus to people.1,2
2. Should we have our cats and dogs tested for COVID-19?
No. Routine testing of domestic animals for COVID-19 is not being recommended by the AVMA, CDC, USDA, or the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD).1,2
3. What should the pet owner do if they think their pet has the virus?
Reinforce the need to call the veterinary clinic with any questions about the pet’s health. Have the owner call ahead to ensure the veterinary clinic is prepared for the pet. Also, make sure to ask if the animal was exposed to a person sick with COVID-19 and if the pet is showing any signs of illness. If the veterinarian believes a patient should be tested, they will contact state animal health officials, who will work with public and animal health authorities to decide whether samples should be collected and tested.
4. Should pet owners stop interacting with their pets?
If the owner is not ill with COVID-19, they can and should interact with their pets as usual—including feeding, playing, etc. Advise them to continue to practice good hygiene when interacting with pets (e.g., wash hands before and after interacting with the pet; keep bedding, toys, bowls, litter boxes clean; etc.)
5. There are not enough human COVID-19 tests, why are animals being tested?
The tests differ between humans and animals. The test used to diagnose the Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo was performed in a veterinary school laboratory and is not the same test as is used for people. The species differ; human samples do not get sent to the veterinary laboratory, and animal tests do not get sent to the human laboratories.³ These are different situations and there is no competition for testing.
These are stressful times. Everyone is anxious and has many questions. Remember to take each question as it comes. Listen and give fact-based answers in a calm and reassuring tone. People are scared. Be knowledgeable and positive and above all be kind.
1. USDA Statement on the Confirmation of COVID-19 in a Tiger in New York. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/newsroom/news/sa_by_date/sa-2020/ny-zoo-covid-19. Accessed April 6, 2020.
2. AVMA COVID-19. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/animal-health-and-welfare/covid-19. Accessed April 6, 2020.
3. Law T, Leung H. A Tiger at the Bronx Zoo Has Tested Positive for Coronavirus. TIME. https://time.com/5815939/tiger-bronx-zoo-positive-coronavirus/. Accessed April 6, 2020.