Big Cats at the Saint Louis Zoo Test Positive for SARS-CoV-2, the Virus that Causes COVID-19

Full recovery expected for all animals thanks to close monitoring combined with preventative and ongoing care

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, November 11, 2021 – Eight big cats at the Saint Louis Zoo have recently tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The animals, which include two African lions, two snow leopards, two jaguars, an Amur tiger, and a puma, continue to be closely monitored and a full recovery for all of the big cats is expected thanks to a combination of preventative and ongoing care. The spread of the virus is isolated to one area of the Zoo – Big Cat Country – and no other animals at the Zoo are showing any signs of infection.

The Zoo has conducted a thorough investigation and a risk assessment involving relevant staff, and has found no evidence to identify the source of the infection. While it is possible the infection was transmitted by an asymptomatic carrier, it has been standard practice for all staff to mask indoors anywhere at the Zoo as well as at all times when around potentially at-risk animals. The Zoo requires staff to be vaccinated and the existing COVID-19 protocols require the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), employee self-screening and health management. The Zoo’s COVID-19 safety and response protocols are in place and being strictly followed.

Most of the big cats showed no signs of illness. A few of them showed a decreased appetite and less activity for short periods of time. Some cats developed respiratory signs, including ocular and nasal discharge and a cough for a couple of days. All the cats continue to be monitored closely by the animal care team and, when deemed appropriate, have received supportive medical care to expedite their recovery and to protect against secondary bacterial infections.

All of the cats at Big Cat Country received a two-dose series of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine specific for animals between September 30 and October 26, 2021, but were likely exposed prior to the second dose. “As in humans, we would expect that full protection against this virus would not be developed until a few weeks after the second injection in a series,” said Sathya Chinnadurai, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACZM, Dipl. ACVAA, Dipl. ACAW, Director of Animal Health, Saint Louis Zoo. 

“The vaccine, even partial immunization, likely helped our cats be able to mount a stronger immune response, and show fewer signs of illness for a shorter period of time than they would have if not previously vaccinated,” said Dr. Chinnadurai.

As of today, 50 animals at the Zoo have received both SARS-CoV-2 vaccine doses specific for animals and another 42 have received one dose. See the Zoo’s previous vaccination announcement here for more details. Current data suggest that the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between vaccinated humans maintaining distance in outdoor settings is low. Since the animals at Big Cat Country are vaccinated and only visible outdoors in open spaces with significant distance between guests and animals, all guests can feel safe when visiting the Zoo.

“The health, well-being and safety of Zoo staff, animals and guests remains our number one priority,” said Luis Padilla, DVM, Dipl. ACZM, Vice President of Animal Collections, Saint Louis Zoo. “We are very appreciative of all the colleagues and scientists who continue to study this virus, share the knowledge and have developed vaccines to keep our animals healthy as we navigate this pandemic. Now more than ever, we recognize that animal health, human health and the health of our environment are interdependent on each other.”

About the Saint Louis Zoo

Home to over 12,000 animals, representing 500 species, the Saint Louis Zoo is recognized worldwide for its innovative approaches to animal care and management, wildlife conservation, research, and education. One of the few free zoos in the nation, the Saint Louis Zoo attracts approximately 3 million visitors annually and is the most-visited attraction in the region. Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Saint Louis Zoo is part of an elite group of institutions that meet the highest standards in animal care as well as provide fun, safe and educational family experiences. The Saint Louis Zoo and the other AZA-accredited institutions collectively dedicate millions of dollars annually to support scientific research, conservation and education programs. For more information, visit stlzoo.org.