COVID-19 is a threat to humans and animals alike.

Eight animals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., are presumed to have tested positive for COVID-19. Six African lions, a Sumatran tiger and two Siberian tigers are being treated for COVID-19 and under close observation, the zoo said.

Final confirmation of the preliminary test is expected within days.

The zoo said the public was not at risk, given the physical distance between the animals and visitors, since its “existing COVID-19 protocols restrict behind-the-scenes access in all animal areas and require use of personal protective equipment, hygiene, cleaning, employee self-screening and health management.”

Zookeepers noticed the animals were eating less, coughing and sneezing, and generally lethargic, so they took fecal samples to test for COVID-19. The big cats are being given anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea medications “to address discomfort and decreased appetite.” They are also receiving antibiotics to protect against secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia.

The National Zoo said it doesn’t have evidence pointing to exactly where the infection originated, and no other animals appear infected.

Adult female Sumatran tiger, Damai, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Several big cats at the zoo are presumed to have COVID-19. (Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute/Zenger)

Based on available information to date, the risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to people is considered to be low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, people who have COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock and wildlife.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has authorized a vaccine against COVID-19 designed specifically for zoo animals. It is made by Zoetis, an American drug company that makes vaccines for pets and other animals.

African lion at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Several big cats at the zoo are presumed to have COVID-19. (Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute/Zenger)

Zoetis said in a July statement that it was donating thousands of doses to zoos across the country to help protect more than 100 species of mammals. The Zoetis vaccine is administered in two doses, delivered three weeks apart. Animals are considered fully protected two weeks after receiving their second dose.

This is not the first time coronavirus infections have hit big cats. Several at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive in spring 2020. All survived.

A lion died of COVID-19 in India’s Valandur Zoo in June; 10 others were being treated for the disease at the same time. And zookeepers in Sweden euthanized a 17-year-old tiger on Jan. 11 after it tested positive.

Edited by Fern Siegel and Kristen Butler

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