14-year-old tiger dies after contracting COVID at Ohio zoo

·4 min read

A tiger at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio has died after developing pneumonia caused by COVID-19. The 14-year-old Amur tiger named Jupiter "had been on long term treatment for chronic underlying illnesses, which made him more susceptible to this virus," the zoo said in a statement on Facebook.

Jupiter was exhibiting signs of illness earlier this month, the zoo said. He was not interested in eating and was reluctant to stand, move or interact with keepers. After an exam and treatment, the tiger did not improve. Although he was given additional treatments and testing and appeared stable, he passed away on Sunday.

Jupiter was born at the Moscow Zoo and was brought to the zoo in Columbus in 2015 after spending time at Zoo Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic. He had nine cubs – six born at the Columbus zoo.

14-year-old tiger dies after contracting COVID-19 at Ohio zoo / Credit: Grahm S. Jones
14-year-old tiger dies after contracting COVID-19 at Ohio zoo / Credit: Grahm S. Jones

As a precaution, zoo staff members wear masks near certain animals that are susceptible to contracting COVID-19, the zoo said.

Jupiter is the first animal at this zoo to die from COVID-19. While many big cats at zoos across the world have tested positive for the virus, there have been few reported deaths.

In November 2021, three snow leopards at the Lincoln Children's Zoo in Nebraska died due to complications of COVID-19, the zoo said on Facebook. In June 2021, a 9-year old Asiatic lion died at a state-run zoo in India after contracting the virus, Reuters reports.

Some zoos have gotten their animals in vaccinated. But at ZooTampa in Florida, a 16-year-old and 7-year-old tiger tested positive after they showing "mild respiratory symptoms" – even though they ware vaccinated. The zoo said they were unsure how the tigers contracted the virus, CBS Miami reports.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York was one of the first to test positive for COVID-19 in April 2020, making headlines. Since then, multiple big cats at the zoo have tested positive. Public health officials said at the time they believe the cats became sick after being exposed to a zoo employee who had the virus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories.

At the start of the pandemic, researchers in China studied COVID-19 in domestic cats and found they are susceptible to airborne infection with the coronavirus. Scientists from Harbin Veterinary Research Institute intentionally exposed groups of cats, dogs, ferrets, pigs, chickens and ducks to the virus, and found some animals are more susceptible than others, according to the study published in Science.

Dogs had a low susceptibility to the virus, and livestock – including pigs, chickens, and ducks – also did not appear to be significantly affected by it.

Both ferrets and cats do appear to be susceptible to infection, the study finds. However, the study was conducted by giving a dose of the virus to the animals to see if they contracted it, which doesn't mimic the way germs are spread in real life, Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, an internal medicine and small animal veterinarian at New York City's Animal Medical Center, told CBS News.

The veterinarian said she has read countless studies that looked at coronavirus in various animals, and much of the research has not surprised her.

"Ferrets have been used for a long time to study upper respiratory disease in people and to help study disease and make vaccines. So, there's something to the ferret respiratory tract that makes the susceptible to our diseases," Hohenhaus said. "If you look at the genetics of the cat receptor... cats and people are almost identical."

Still, she said veterinarians, the CDC and U.S. Department of Agriculture are giving pet owners the same advice they've continued to give during this pandemic. "Wash your hands before you touch your pet, wash your hands after you touch your pet. If you're sick, wear a mask... you should not take care of your pet and find a surrogate to take care of your pet so that you can quarantine yourself away from everyone in the family, which includes all pets," Hohenhaus said.

In guidance updated in April 2022, the CDC said the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to humans is low, but the virus can spread from humans to animals during close contact.

"More studies and surveillance are needed to understand how SARS-CoV-2 is spread between people and animals," the CDC says, adding that people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock, and wildlife.

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