Two Amur tigers at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
When the 11-year-old female Tiger began to cough, the Veterinary staff knew from colleague’s descriptions and videos of infected Tigers that COVID-19 was likely; and they requested samples from many of the Zoo’s large cats.
Thanks to routine training performed by the Animal Care staff, several of the cats allowed nasal swabs to be collected. With the help of the Douglas County Health Department, the nasal swabs were tested at the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, which generally runs human samples. The nasal swabs for the two Amur tigers came up positive, while swabs from the female Snow leopard and two male Lions were negative. Thanks to collaboration with the Health Department, the Zoo received results within 48 hours of the onset of the Tiger’s symptoms, which allowed for a quick response.
Follow-up testing is currently being performed at the USDA APHIS National Veterinary Services Lab (NVSL) to confirm the positive result. Fecal samples submitted for the two Tigers, the male Snow leopard, and the female Lions were also tested at the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory and gave the same results: the Tigers tested positive, but all other cats tested negative.
The 8-year-old male and 11-year-old female Tigers have shown minor symptoms including coughing, sneezing, mild lethargy, and mild decrease in appetite. Animal Care staff are providing supportive care. Staff also report that the Tigers’ appetites and attitudes are back to normal, although they still have an occasional cough. Zoo staff are optimistic that the Tigers will fully recover. No other animals at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium have shown clinical signs consistent with COVID-19 at this time.
“The care of our animals is central to everything we do at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium,” said Dr. Sarah Woodhouse, DVM, Dipl. ACZM, Director of Animal Health for Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have taken extra precautions to protect our animals from COVID-19, especially those species we know are more susceptible to the virus. As more information becomes available, we continue to update our safety protocols to best protect the animals in our care, our dedicated Zoo staff, and our community.”
At the end of October, after the COVID-19 related death of a Snow leopard at another Zoo, Omaha’s Zoo and Aquarium Veterinary staff put additional rules in place to minimize exposure of the Zoo’s felids to COVID-19. After these two positive cases, further safety precautions have been put in place to restrict access to indoor cat areas and suspend training where keepers would be within six feet of the animal.
Zoetis is developing a SARS-COV-2 vaccine for animals and has given free doses to several U.S. Zoos. Omaha’s Zoo and Aquarium Veterinary staff have been working with Zoetis since late September to secure several doses of vaccine in the company’s second round of distribution. Although the vaccine is still considered experimental at this time, Veterinarians at zoos that received vaccines in the first round of distribution have seen no significant adverse effects in vaccinated animals of any species. Once Zoetis has USDA approval to distribute the vaccine, Veterinary staff intends to vaccinate the most at-risk felids. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium will continue to provide vaccine updates as changes occur.
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is committed to the safety and well-being of our guests, animals, and employees, and will make changes as needed based on actual operating conditions and guidance from public health experts. The Zoo has adopted the principals of "Healthy You, Healthy Zoo," and this program will remain in place as a reminder of safe practices. The Zoo is still encouraging unvaccinated guests to wear face masks, especially indoors or where maintaining six feet of distance may not possible.