Lions and Tigers at National Zoo Test Positive for COVID-19

COVID-19 is attacking the animal kingdom, and zoos might be the battleground.

Eight animals at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. tested positive for COVID-19. Six African lions, a Sumatran tiger and two Siberian tigers are being treated for COVID-19 and under close observation, the zoo said.

Final confirmation of the preliminary tests are expected within days.

The zoo said the public is not at risk, given the physical distance between the animals and visitors, since its "existing COVID-19 protocols restrict behind-the-scenes access in all animal areas and require use of personal protective equipment, hygiene, cleaning, employee self-screening and health management."

African Lion
An adult male African lion named Luke is pictured at Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Six African lions, a Sumatran tiger and two Siberian tigers are being treated there for COVID-19. Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute/Zenger News

Zookeepers noticed the animals were lethargic, eating less, coughing and sneezing, so they took fecal samples to test for COVID-19. The big cats are being given anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea medications "to address discomfort and decreased appetite," according to the zoo. They are also receiving antibiotics to protect against secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia.

The National Zoo said it doesn't have evidence pointing to exactly where the infection originated, and no other animals appear infected.

The risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to people is considered low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, people who have COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock and wildlife.

Tiger, National Zoo
An adult female Sumatran tiger, Damai, at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Several big cats at the zoo tested positive for COVID-19 in preliminary tests. Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute/Zenger

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has authorized a vaccine against COVID-19 designed specifically for zoo animals. It is made by Zoetis, an American drug company that produces vaccines for pets and other animals.

Zoetis said in a July statement that it was donating thousands of doses to zoos across the country to help protect more than 100 species of mammals. The vaccine is administered in two doses, delivered three weeks apart. Like humans, animals are considered fully protected two weeks after receiving their second dose.

This is not the first time coronavirus infections have hit big cats. Several at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive in spring 2020, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. They all survived.

The Arignar Anna Zoo near Chennai in India reports that two lions there have died of COVID-19 this year, the latest in June. Ten others were being treated there for the disease at the same time. Zookeepers in Sweden euthanized a 17-year-old tiger on Jan. 11 after it tested positive, according to the Swedish National Veterinary Institute.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.