Lions, tigers, leopards all have tested positive for COVID: What we know about the virus in animals

Conversations over the impact of COVID-19 on animals are back in the spotlight after the recent deaths of three snow leopards that tested positive for the virus at the Lincoln Children's Zoo in Nebraska.

During the pandemic, there have been multiple reports of zoo animals testing positive for COVID-19, including lions, tigers, gorillas, snow leopards and recently hyenas. There have also been reports of household animals like cats and dogs contracting the virus. 

Most animals that contract the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans do recover. However, like humans, predisposed conditions can cause certain animals to experience more serious complications that could lead to death. 

"Although we know that COVID-19 is primarily a human disease, over the past year and a half we've learned some animals are more susceptible to infection," Dr. Jose Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, told USA TODAY

How many animals died after getting COVID? 

The amount of animals that have died after getting COVID-19 is not known, but there have been a few reports. 

Last month, officials at the the Sioux Falls zoo said COVID-19 may have killed one of their rare snow leopards. A 13-year-old African lion with underlying health conditions at the Honolulu Zoo died last month after contracting the virus, Maui Now reported. And on Friday, officials at the Lincoln Children's Zoo reported multiple animals were infected with the deaths of three snow leopards from complications due to COVID-19.

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Last year, the first dog to test positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. died months later after his owners and vet made the decision to euthanize him. Buddy the German Shepherd remained ill, struggled to breath, lost weight and became increasingly lethargic before being put down. 

How does COVID affect animals?

Arce said animals who contract the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans have mild symptoms like sneezing, lethargy and stuffy nose.

They usually recover quickly and can be treated with antibiotics and steroids like humans. He said most cases can be traced back to the animals' handler who most likely was in close proximity with the animals before testing positive for the virus. 

"We don't deny there is possible cross contamination from animal to animal, but the good thing is there is very little exposure from animals to humans," Arce said. 

He said some animals, like humans, may be more susceptible to serious complication from the virus due to predisposed conditions. 

"If they are older with heart problems or other conditions, that will sometimes make animals more susceptible because their immune system is not able to combat the virus like healthy animals," he said. 

What about vaccinating animals? 

Some zoos began using an experimental vaccine from Zoetis, an animal health company, to vaccinate their animals against COVID-19.

Arce said it is too early to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine, but preliminary results have been positive. 

The Cincinnati Zoo vaccinated 80 animals from skunks to pandas over the course of six weeks, according to an October press release from the zoo. They said negative reactions to the vaccine have not been observed and will continue to monitor them. 

In June, tigers, bears and mountain lions received the vaccine at the Oakland Zoo. Officials at the Atlanta zoo were considering vaccinating 18 gorillas after they displayed COVID-19 symptoms after delta exposure. 

Arce said people can help animals by getting vaccinated because those who don't can lead the virus to create more mutations that could affect animals. 

"Getting vaccinated is important for public health and also animal health."

Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Asha Gilbert @Coastalasha. Email: [email protected]

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Animals can have similar COVID symptoms to humans, some have died

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