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In response to a growing concern that COVID-19 could be transmitted from humans to wildlife, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has decided to take extra precautions while handling wild animals and will temporarily cease handling any bats for research.
“The concern right now is greatest with bats, for a variety of reasons, one of those being bats have recently suffered a dramatic population decline in Maine and across most of the United States due to white-nose syndrome,” said Nate Webb, director of Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s wildlife division. “There’s a concern this could be another disease that could lead to population declines, though at this point there’s no conclusive evidence either way — just a concern.”
In handling all other wildlife species, the department is recommending that biologists and others who interact with wildlife wear gloves, facemasks and depending on the situation, either washable or disposable coveralls.
These changes in protocol are currently being communicated to DIF&W staff and Maine people who have state-issued permits to work with wildlife, such as wildlife rehabilitators and animal damage control agents, according to Webb.
“Our primary concern is humans transmitting the virus to wildlife,” Webb said. “That being said, there’s a lot we don’t know [about the virus], and there is also some concern of transmission from wildlife to people, though I’m not aware of any evidence of that in North America.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that there is no evidence to suggest that any animals — including pets, livestock or wildlife — are transmitting COVID-19 to humans at this time.
Nevertheless, “further studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19,” according to the CDC website.
COVID-19 in wild animals
The DIF&W’s decision to establish new protocol for handling wildlife was influenced by recommendations and information recently provided by the National Wildlife Health Center.
“We’ve been actually in consultation with our sister agencies — federal and state agencies — the past few days on this,” Webb said.
A recent bulletin by the National Wildlife Health Center states that coronaviruses such as the one that causes COVID-19 “is closely related to a virus originating from a bat, and each likely underwent evolution and further adaptation in an intermediate mammalian host before infecting humans.”
COVID-19 has been found in a small number of animals, including most recently a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Six additional big cats at the zoo are exhibiting symptoms of the disease.
This was the first confirmed case of an animal falling ill with the disease in the U.S., and the first tiger in the world that has tested positive for the virus.
“What we likely have in the tiger in the Bronx Zoo is the zookeeper passing it to the animal,” said Maine State Veterinarian Michele Walsh. “We don’t have any evidence it can be passed back in the other direction.”
Still, the diagnosis wasn’t entirely a surprise.
“There are other coronaviruses like SARS that are documented to potentially affect wildcats,” Walsh said. “So I don’t think we were particularly surprised to find that these big cats — because they were in contact with a [COVID-19] positive zookeeper — are now potentially showing signs of the disease.”
The Bronx Zoo has been closed to the public since March 16. On Sunday, the zoo released a statement that offered details about the positive diagnosis of the 4-year-old Malayan tiger, Nadia, and the other big cats that have fallen ill at the zoo: three additional tigers and three lions. All seven of the cats have developed a cough but are expected to recover.
“Though they have experienced some decrease in appetite, the cats at the Bronx Zoo are otherwise doing well under veterinary care and are bright, alert, and interactive with their keepers,” according to the statement. “It is not known how this disease will develop in big cats since different species can react differently to novel infections, but we will continue to monitor them closely and anticipate full recoveries.”
COVID-19 in domestic animals
There have also been a few diagnoses in domesticated animals — pets — including two domestic dogs and a house cat in Hong Kong, and a house cat in Belgium. It’s believed these animals contracted the disease from their owners. And, like with the wild animals, there is no evidence that the animals are capable of transmitting the disease to humans.
Still, veterinarians are being cautious.
“It can be a challenge whenever there’s an emerging pathogen because we don’t have this long history of research on a novel strain to inform everything we’re doing,” said Walsh.
Out of an abundance of caution, Walsh and other veterinarians in Maine are asking pet owners who have COVID-19 to limit contact with their pets.
“Avoid contact like petting really close or snuggling and being kissed or licked by that animal, or sharing food with that animal,” Walsh said.
If it’s an option, have someone in your household who is not sick take care of the pet. And if that’s not possible — say you live alone — it’s OK to continue to take care of your pet and simply limit contact, Walsh said. Wash your hands frequently and consider wearing gloves or a mask when handling your pet. Also, if you notice that your pet is having respiratory problems, contact your veterinarian.
It’s currently believed that transmission of the virus from people to pets is extremely rare.
IDEXX Laboratories — a global leader in veterinary diagnostics and software that’s headquartered in Westbrook, Maine — has tested for the pathogen in thousands of dogs and cats and has seen no positive results to date. The specimens tested originated from the U.S. and South Korea. The company has now expanded monitoring to Canada and European countries.
IDEXX isn’t the only lab testing animals for COVID-19, which involves a different test than the test used for humans. All around the world, scientists are collaborating to learn more about the disease.
The testing of the Bronx Zoo tiger is a good example of this. The process involved the New York State Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell University and the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, where the initial COVID-19 testing of samples from the tiger were performed, as well as the USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratory, where confirmatory testing was conducted.
“If you think of how many infected individuals are in our country right now — I’d think we’d be hearing a lot more about symptomatic pets if this virus was easily transferable to pets,” Walsh said. “That being said, we should be doing right by our pets. It’s our job to protect them from this disease too.”
Watch: 6 ways you can prevent COVID-19