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Expert warns cat owners to keep pets in their coronavirus lockdown bubbles after Covid-19 diagnosis in tiger

A veterinary expert is calling for pet owners to keep their pets inside their bubble while there is still little information about how Covid-19 is spread between species.

A tabby cat. Source: istock.com

Yesterday, it was revealed a tiger in a New York zoo had contracted the coronavirus and several others at the centre were ill.

Professor David Hayman, an infectious disease ecology expert at Massey Univeristy's School of Veterinary Science, told 1 NEWS today that pets, especially cats, who were around infectious humans were most at risk.

"What these cases suggest is that other species jumps can occur and we know that can cause problems for people, as Covid shows, and for domestic and wild animals. This is just another reason to try to limit the spread of this virus," he said.

However, Professor Hayman added that overall there is low risk to household pets and livestock while numbers are low among people in New Zealand.

But that doesn't mean measures shouldn't be taken to help protect them.

"The protection for them and us is to include those animals in the bubble and try to be vigilant with basic hygiene, like handwashing, especially if there's any uncertainty about whether your pet has left your bubble, like roaming cats do."

Professor Hayman said beyond people, laboratory and computational studies suggest the virus might have the ability to infect a wide range of species, but there are only limited reports of this happening so far.

"A very recent experiment suggested ferrets and cats can be infected and infectious, but dogs, pigs, chickens and ducks are less or not susceptible. People might wonder why ferrets were studied, and that is because they have been used by researchers as laboratory animals for human respiratory infections in the past," he said.

"I actually have other concerns, for example I work in places like Uganda and I know they are concerned about the endangered mountain gorillas because they live in close proximity to people and have picked up human respiratory infections before.

"Infection in these population might significantly impact their populations should it spread between family groups or repeatedly into the populations, though it is hard to predict how different viruses impact different species."

But Professor Hayman said the main focus now was on limiting human-to-human transmission.

Following Ministry of Health guidelines to stop that spread, Auckland Zoo's Head of Life Sciences Richard Gibson said they had shut doors to visitors during the alert level four lockdown. Only animal teams and support services are working on site in reduced and separated teams.

Mr Gibson said there was no reason to suspect any of the zoo's cats were affected, but new measures including zoo keepers wearing PPE gear like gloves and masks, had been implemented to protect them anyway.

"A scientific paper published last week confirming cat-to-cat transmission of Covid-19 under laboratory conditions led our veterinary team and carnivore keepers to implement some additional precautionary measures," he said.

"These measures, are to protect our cat species (lions, cheetahs and serval) from contracting Covid-19 via asymptomatic humans and include staff wearing masks and gloves at all times when in close contact with these animals, when cleaning their habitats and when preparing their food.

Auckland Zoo has also extended the same measures to some other carnivores, including otters, meerkats and red pandas, as an added precaution since their susceptibility to Covid-19 is unknown.

Mr Gibson said there was little information about the new strain of coronavirus in humans let alone animals.

"We do know that coronaviruses have always been a part of animal biology and occur naturally in all sorts of different species, including cats."

"Because humans are primates – and clearly, we can get Covid-19 - we have taken the precautionary approach of assuming that other primate species are likely be more at risk of contracting Covid-19 than many other animal groups."