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If a tiger can get COVID-19, is my pet also at risk?

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SANDSTONE, MN -- A tiger in Pine County received positive COVID-19 test results Tuesday.

Sabrina is a 21-year-old Sumatran/Bengal tiger living at the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minnesota.

She was rescued almost a decade ago.

The Wildcat Sanctuary Founder Tammy Thies said Sabrina started showing symptoms of COVID-19 in early January and decided to get her tested.

"We tested her for upper respiratory diseases and other viruses and, because we're living in a COVID world we wanted to be very thorough, we added that to the list," Thies said.

Sabrina's COVID-19 test came back positive.

Despite their precautions, the sanctuary believes she and other cats got the virus from a caregiver who did not know they were sick.

All sanctuary staff members got tested for COVID-19.

Four of them tested positive.

They have all since recovered and returned to work.

The sanctuary does not know how many animals actually got COVID-19 as veterinarians are still collecting data.

After treating her symptoms, Sabrina has fully recovered.

"Any cats that did have symptoms here at the sanctuary have fully recovered, so we're very thankful for that," Thies said. "We have always been wearing PPE with the animals. Our staff was wearing cloth masks, sanitizing, social distancing."

Staff members have since upgraded to N95 masks.

The sanctuary is confident they will not see more sick cats anytime soon.

"Now we know COVID is going to be in our world for a long time, so we're hoping that, similar to people, there's going to be a protection for the cats that are experiencing some symptoms, but we are not going to lighten on our precautions," Thies said.

This is the fourth COVID-19 outbreak among large cats in the U.S., but big cats are not the only animals who can get the virus.

Though cases are very rare, household pets are also at risk.

State Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Joni Scheftel said symptoms of the virus in pets are just like they are in people.

"They develop coughs, sometimes shortness of breath, wheezing, you might see sneezing," Scheftel said. "Except for being a furry little creature, it's just like people."

Scheftel said cats and ferrets are particularly susceptible.

She recommends owners keep their distance from their pets if they have COVID-19 and ask someone else to care for them.

"If you have respiratory symptoms, symptoms of COVID, or if you've tested positive, you should ask someone else to take care of your cat," Scheftel said. "You shouldn't snuggle or cuddle your cat while you have symptoms."

If no one else can care for the pet, Scheftel said owners should wear a mask and gloves when caring for them and not interact with them until they are well.

"It's our job to keep them healthy," she said. "Be strong and don't cuddle your pets if you have COVID."

In the U.S., there has not been an identified case of animals giving the virus to people.

The Minnesota Department of Health said to contact your vet for a COVID test only when the pet is showing symptoms and the owner tested positive.

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Kendall Jarboe

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