Geriatric Tigress Sabrina Tested Positive for Covid-19; She and Other Big Cats Who Exhibited Symptoms Have Recovered and are Doing Well
Sabrina, a 21-year-old tigress at The Wildcat Sanctuary, tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The elderly female, as well as other tigers, lions and cougars, showed mild symptoms including intermittent wheezing and decreased appetite. All are now bright, alert and responsive after close veterinary care and have recovered.
Due to Sabrina’s chronic health issues and age, and out of an abundance of caution, she was sedated by our veterinarian on January 10th for an exam. While under anesthesia, swab samples were taken and sent to the lab for upper respiratory diseases and Covid-19 testing. The test results were confirmed today by the U.S Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories.
Caregivers and staff at our sanctuary have maintained strict Covid-19 protocols (wearing face masks, sanitizing hands frequently and maintaining physical distance) since the onset of the pandemic early last year. Despite these stringent precautions, we believe the initial exposure came from an asymptomatic caregiver. Sanctuary staff and caregivers have all been tested. Our sanctuary is not open to the public.
In today’s world, the risk of taking in big cats affected by the virus is yet another issue we face as a rescue organization. The spread of symptoms among several of our cats leads us to believe cat-to-cat transmission happened after the initial exposure from a caregiver. To learn as much as possible about how the virus affects big cats, our staff is grateful to have consulted with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health and veterinarians at two major zoos which have had big cats with the virus also.
Every indoor building of the sanctuary utilized by the cats during cold weather is being treated as a separate quarantine area. We also increased our Covid-19 protocols so that every caregiver is now wearing an N95 mask and gloves when in proximity to any cats.
It is our hope that what we’ve learned about this virus will add valuable knowledge to the global understanding of how it affects big cats, and the information will help other facilities recognize these symptoms in their cats.
The Wildcat Sanctuary (TWS) is the only accredited, non-profit sanctuary in the Midwest. TWS provides a natural sanctuary to 127 wild cats in need and inspires change to end the captive wildlife crisis. Combining natural and spacious habitats with a life free of exhibition, TWS allows all residents to live wild at heart. As a true sanctuary, we do not buy, breed, sell or exhibit animals. The Wildcat Sanctuary is accredited by the American Sanctuary Association and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. More information can be found at WildcatSanctuary.org
Frequently Asked Questions
How did they contract COVID-19?
We believe initial exposure came from an asymptomatic caregiver working with food preparation and the cats. The entire staff was tested once the cats began showing symptoms.
Does your staff wear PPE?
Yes, at the sanctuary all staff, caretakers and interns wear masks, frequently sanitize hands and maintain social distance.
Has your PPE protocol changed?
We now require caretakers to wear N95 masks (vs. cloth masks), gloves and goggles. All buildings are treated as their own quarantine area with foot baths for caregivers, each cat has their own utensils, etc.
Have they all recovered?
All cats are now symptom free and have fully recovered.
Does Dash have COVID-19?
No. Since his rescue, we have maintained strict quarantine procedures due to his age and the fact that he doesn’t have all his vaccinations yet.
Did you test all of the cats with symptoms?
No, because it wouldn’t change the course of our treatment or the outcome for the cats. Our primary focus has been caring for the cats, sanitizing, and ensuring staff has recovered.
Why did you wait to let us know?
As soon as test results came in and were confirmed, we, along with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, shared the news. It would not have been responsible to share until we had the confirmation.
What species were affected?
The most affected cats at our sanctuary were tigers and some cougars and lions.
Can other facilities/sanctuaries get COVID-19?
Yes. All facilities that house big cats and have humans caring for the big cats can transmit COVID-19. Luckily, the cats tend to have mild symptoms and recover fully, just like in human transmission.
The Bronx, Louisville and Knoxville Zoo have all had cats test positive for COVID-19. Other facilities have reported similar symptoms but have not tested, and instead treated symptomatically.
We’ve provided educational resources to the Big Cat Sanctuary Alliance and initiated an educational webinar available to all sanctuary members so they can learn more about exposure risk, symptoms, treatment and importance of testing.
Can cats transmit the virus to each other?
The CDC does not give specific guidance about captive wild cats but does say “Recent experimental research shows that cats, dogs, ferrets, fruit bats and hamsters can become infected with the virus. (They) can also spread the infection to other animals of the same species in laboratory settings.”
Can people transmit the virus to big cats?
The CDC says “We are still learning about this virus, but it appears that it can spread from people to animals in some situations.”
Can cats transmit the virus to humans?
The CDC says “SARS-CoV-2 spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, and talking. At this time, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low.”