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NGSS: Core Ideas: LS4.D; LS1.A

CCSS: Literacy in Science: 10

TEKS: 6.3D, 7.3D, 8.3D, B.3D

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

Can Animals Get Covid-19?

Scientist Anna Fagre answers this question and more about the pandemic’s effect on animals

San Diego Zoo Global Archives

GORILLAS TEST POSITIVE: In January 2021, gorillas at the San Diego Zoo tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It is suspected that the animals caught the virus from a staff member at the zoo.

When Covid-19 began spreading around the world in December 2019, one of the first things scientists did was start looking for the source of the new illness. No one had ever encountered the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 in humans before. But it did look similar to viruses carried by bats. That led researchers to believe the virus was zoonotic, meaning it originated in an animal (in this case, bats) and jumped to humans when they came in close contact.

But the virus didn’t stop with people: It has continued to spread to a range of other species. So far, scientists have detected the coronavirus in pets like cats, ferrets, and dogs. Wild animals, including gorillas, lions, minks, tigers, and snow leopards, have also tested positive for Covid-19.

Science World spoke to Dr. Anna Fagre, a veterinarian and microbiologist at Colorado State University. She discusses the impact SARS-CoV-2 is having on animals around the world—and what people can do to keep themselves and other species safe.

Kellen Bakovich/Colorado State University

WILDLIFE DISEASE EXPERT: Anna Fagre, a veterinarian and microbiology researcher, examines samples in her lab.

Is Covid-19 dangerous for animals?

It varies depending on the animal. There have been reports of cats, ranging from house cats to tigers, developing a little bit of a cough and a runny nose. Dogs, on the other hand, are less likely to develop symptoms.

Gorillas have developed congestion and coughing as well. So far, these cases have been confined to zoos. The worst thing would be for the virus to spread to wild animal populations already at risk of extinction. For example, it would be terrible if endangered gorillas in the wild became infected with Covid-19 on top of all the other threats to their populations, like illegal hunting and the loss of their forest habitats.

What has been the worst outbreak of Covid-19 in animals?

Populations of minks, which are related to ferrets, have been hit particularly hard. Raising minks for their fur is a big industry in Europe and the United States, and multiple mink farms have experienced outbreaks. In those farms, Covid-19 spreads like wildfire. All the minks get infected. We’re seeing them get pneumonia—a severe lung infection—and thousands of minks have died.

Can animals other than bats give Covid-19 to humans?

In most cases, animals catch Covid-19 from humans, but they don’t pass it back. However, minks are a different story. At one farm in Europe, the virus jumped from a human employee to the minks and began circulating throughout the animal population. Then the virus jumped back to humans. This has been traced to around a dozen cases of Covid-19 in people. Late last fall, the government of Denmark culled, or killed, about 17 million of the animals to prevent further spread. Scientists are also working to develop a vaccine for minks. The medicine could prevent minks from contracting Covid-19 and potentially prevent the transmission of the virus from minks to people.

Sergei Grits/AP Photo

CLOSE QUARTERS: Minks on a farm near Naestved, Denmark, in November.

Do we need to be worried about our pets spreading Covid-19?

The biggest issue isn’t that your family could catch the virus from your pet—it’s that your pet could pick up the virus from your family. If someone in your household is sick or has tested positive for Covid-19, they shouldn’t interact with your pets. Just like an infected person should quarantine, or remain isolated, from the rest of their family, they should also avoid cuddling, feeding, or kissing pets. That said, I wouldn’t interact with other people’s pets outside your family’s “bubble”—the small group of people you’re regularly around—without wearing masks or social distancing.

What have people been doing to protect animals from Covid-19?

People who work with animals are taking many of the same precautions as they would with humans. For example, they wash their hands and always wear masks. Visitors to many zoos have to get their temperatures checked upon arrival and stay at least 9 meters (30 feet) away from the animals too. Most importantly, we need to learn more about how the virus affects other species so we can protect them.

Should animals be vaccinated against Covid-19, just like scientists are recommending for people?

Several Covid-19 vaccines have been created that help prevent people from getting the illness. We may want to vaccinate threatened animal populations susceptible to the virus as well, particularly if they are in close proximity to humans. One example is great apes, like gorillas and chimpanzees. These animals interact frequently with zookeepers, vets, and other humans. There’s also the endangered black-footed ferret, which is being bred in captivity. These ferrets have actually already received an experimental Covid-19 vaccine.

There’s also been discussion of vaccinating pets to prevent them from being infected and potentially spreading the virus to other pets or people. But in reality, the risk of human-to-human transmission is far greater than any possibility of contracting the virus from our pets. In my opinion, we need to focus on getting people vaccinated before we start vaccinating animals—the exception being those species that are particularly vulnerable and at high risk of contracting the disease from humans.

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