BROOKFIELD, IL — The reported infection of animals with COVID-19 has been documented around the world. Most of these animals have contracted the disease from contact with their human caretakers or owners.
Veterinarians say part of the fight against the coronavirus includes vaccinating zoo animals to prevent what’s known as spillover infections.
Scientists believe that most new infectious diseases are caused by animals.
The zoonotic origins of the 2003 SARS epidemic in Asia can be traced back to the cave-dwelling horseshoe Bats from China. It eventually spread to animals at live markets, where it was able to infect humans.
“There’s a huge interconnectedness between animals and people when it comes to a different number of different viruses and other illnesses,” said Dr. Mike Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine at the Chicago Zoological Society
Still, the source of SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 is still an official mystery.
An unclassified report from the office of the Director of National Intelligence last month was only confident that it was “not developed as a biological weapon.”
What we do know is that the novel coronavirus is not a human-only infection.
“We have seen cases of COVID-19 occur in a number of different species around the country in different zoos, primarily primates, large cats such as tigers, lions, leopards, as well as a number of smaller carnivores like otters and mink,” said Adkesson.
More than a dozen western lowland Gorillas tested positive for COVID-19 in Zoo Atlanta late last week. Their care team noticed changes to their appetitive and respiratory conditions.
“Coughing, sneezing, lethargy, the animals just clearly feel a little bit under the weather, the same way that we see those same signs and symptoms in people,” said Adkesson.
While the virus is not transmitted to animals in large numbers, they are still susceptible.
“Part of the concern is that those animals are able to spread it to other animals and potentially able to spread it back to people,” said Adkesson.
According to the CDC, there have been isolated cases where domestic cats and dogs have contracted COVID-19 and were able to transmit it back to humans.
The CDC says that zoos all over the country are now beginning to immunize their animals, starting with carnivores, primate, and big cats. Zoetis’ emergency use authorization requires that two doses be given three weeks apart.
“We’re still pretty early on in this process, but we know that the vaccine is safe from the trials that Zoetis has done with it,” said Adkesson. “So, it’s really just a question of how efficacious it’s going to be in the long run for our animals.”
Caretakers at the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago have been required to mask and maintain social distancing as much as possible from the animals.
“There have been cases that have emerged in other zoos, though, even with those guidelines in place. So, we know that the virus is able to infect many of these animals the same way it’s able to infect people,” said Adkesson.
It’s another reminder that the health of humans, animals, and the environment is intertwined.