Zoo animals are being given experimental vaccinations for protection

As soon as Lois Whelan heard about a COVID-19 vaccine making the rounds foranimals, she decided she would inoculate her dog and cat if given theopportunity. But the 71-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Florida, resident may haveto wait awhile. Scientists are just starting to test an experimental COVID-19vaccine on zoo animals, such as tigers, bears, gorillas and ferrets.

Studies have shown that humans can pass the coronavirus to their cats anddogs, and zoo animals are also at risk of catching the virus. Epidemiologistsand public health officials worry that some animal species could foster thedisease and allow it to mutate.

Whelan thinks that a pet vaccination could be important, despite the smalllikelihood that her dog and cat will get COVID-19. “But what if?” she asks.

Lions and tigers and bears get shots

This summer some zoos have begun vaccinating animals with an experimental dosecreated solely for critters. Veterinary pharmaceutical company Zoetis isdonating more than 11,000 doses of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine foranimals to nearly 70 zoos, as well as sanctuaries, universities andconservation programs throughout 27 states. The goal is to protect susceptiblespecies from sickness and death, according to the company.

At the Bronx Zoo, in New York, lions and tigers contracted COVID-19 in April2020, followed by a troop of critically endangered western lowland gorillas,who received supportive care at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in early 2021.In June two lions died at a zoo in India after testing positive for COVID-19.

“Zoos, these days, harbor some animals that are highly endangered in theirnatural environment…,” says Dorothee Bienzle, veterinarian and immunologist atthe Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph in Canada. “Wereally can’t afford to lose any more of them.”

California’s Oakland Zoo has vaccinated about 50 animals already, startingwith bears, mountain lions, tigers and ferrets. The San Diego Zoo kicked offits vaccination campaign with nine great apes, and the Denver Zoo began withgorillas and big cats.

One-way transmission

Scientists have found that COVID-19 can be transmitted from humans to dogs andcats, but it’s less likely for it to be transmitted from pets to humans.

Bienzle recently completed a study of cats and dogs living in households withhumans who contracted COVID-19. More cats tested positive (67 percent) thandogs (43 percent). The cats spent more time with their owners, especiallysleeping in bed with them, increasing the possibility of infection; this wasnot true of the dogs. “Dogs have a high risk but not as high as cats,” Bienzleadds.

Felines have receptors similar to humans that allow the coronavirus to attachand infect, explains Will Sander, DVM, assistant professor of preventivemedicine and public health at the College of Veterinary Medicine at theUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While the majority of infectedcats have shown mild symptoms, such as coughing, sneezing or stomach upset,some studies have found severe symptoms — including one feline in the UnitedKingdom that had to be euthanized.

“The risk of infection seems to be quite high for cats,” Bienzle says.“Illness seems to occur, but it’s mild and transient; serious cases seem to beextremely rare.”

Cats who rarely interacted with humans had far less chance of contracting thevirus.

But whether or not a COVID-19 vaccine is approved for domesticated pets,veterinarians aren’t pushing it.

“The necessity of it would be hard to argue, because mortality is very low,virtually nonexistent in pets,” Bienzle says. “Pets invariably get theirinfection from people, so if we can get all the people vaccinated and reduceinfection among people, then pets are much less at risk.”

Putting a pet plan in place

Some people are preparing, however, in case their cats and dogs do contractthe disease.

As she does for hurricanes every year, South Florida–based photographerCandace West put an emergency plan in place for her three cats in case shewere to come down with the virus or transmit it to her pets.

She and some friends agreed to care for one another’s animals if one of themfell ill. West, who regularly fosters cats with medical needs, also purchasedextra fluids, appetite stimulants and antibiotics for the animals asprecautions.

“I made sure to have everything on hand and enough for a friend,” says West,who is over 50. “I’m not a normal person, but it’s not rocket science eitherjust to have supportive care.”

Though creating a plan is certainly a good idea, the best way to preventtransmitting COVID-19 to pets is to treat them as you would another human.

Sander agrees with the physical distancing protocol. “The CDC has put outgreat guidance,” he says. “If you’ve come down with COVID, try to isolateyourself from your pets and other people in the house, and if you can’t havesomeone else take care of pets, wear a mask around them and wash hands to tryand minimize spread.”

Source: Sara Ventiera, AARP

Image: Bigstock

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