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Lions, jaguars and other cats at the St. Louis Zoo test positive for coronavirus

Jaguars are among the cats that have tested positive for the coronavirus during an outbreak at the St. Louis Zoo.
Emily Woodbury
St. Louis Public Radio
Jaguars are among the cats that have tested positive for the coronavirus during an outbreak at the St. Louis Zoo.

Eight large cats at the St. Louis Zoo recently tested positive for the coronavirus, the first reported outbreak among animals at the Forest Park attraction.

Zookeepers tested all animals in the Big Cat Country habitat after a few developed runny noses. Like humans, several tested positive but didn’t have any symptoms. Other cats have upper respiratory infections. Caretakers are treating their symptoms, zoo officials said.

Zoo officials expect the lions, jaguars, leopards, tiger and puma to make a full recovery.

Zoo Health Director Sathya Chinnadurai attributes the cats’ positive prognosis to their COVID-19 vaccinations, which the cats received earlier this fall.

“Very similar to people, the vaccinated cats seem to do a much better job of mounting the immune response and fighting off the infection,” he said. “So in this case all those cats had had at least one vaccine for the coronavirus."

It’s likely the cats caught the virus from an asymptomatic human carrier. It’s not unheard of for animals at the zoo to catch viruses from humans they’re in close contact with, Chinnadurai said.

Zoo employees can test animals with nasal swabs similar to those used in humans, he said. But that requires animal handlers to first tranquilize the cats. Instead, caretakers test the animals’ feces to figure out if they’ve caught the coronavirus.

If the cats hadn’t been vaccinated, they would have been much sicker or could have died, Chinnadurai said. Nationwide, several animals that caught the coronavirus before animal vaccinations became available became seriously sick with respiratory symptoms.

“The first cases seen in zoos were actually in tigers and since then, tigers, snow leopards, lions have all been reported,” Chinnadurai said. “Big cats seem to be more susceptible to the disease than other species.”

That’s why big cats, along with other carnivorous mammals including hyenas and apes, were the first in line to get the vaccine in October, he said. Vets and scientists talk to other zoos around the country to keep track of what animals are catching the coronavirus and use the information to guide which animals could benefit from the shot.

Scientists have tested other animals at the zoo, but it appears the outbreak has not spread beyond the cats.

“At the zoo we’re incredibly fortunate that they’ve been able to work with the animal health team to get so many of our animals vaccinated," Chinnadurai said. “That’s helped us immensely.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter:@petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.