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Louisville Zoo records 1st coronavirus cases in snow leopards

The Louisville Zoo's three snow leopards have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI
The Louisville Zoo's three snow leopards have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. File Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 11 (UPI) -- The Louisville Zoo in Kentucky announced Friday that three snow leopards tested positive for the novel coronavirus -- the first known cases in the species since the start of the pandemic.

John Walczak, the zoo's director, said all three of the facility's snow leopards began showing symptoms of the virus over the past two weeks, including occasional dry cough and wheezing.

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They sent samples for diagnostic testing, all of which returned positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

Walczak said the symptoms in all three cats -- NeeCee, Kimti and Meru -- are minor and they're all expected to recover.

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The zoo took the snow leopards off exhibit and handlers are taking safety precautions, though the risk of animal-to-human transmission is considered low.

"We will be closely monitoring the snow leopards for ongoing symptoms and resampling them to identify when they have cleared the infection," senior staff veterinarian Dr. Zoli Gyimesi said.

The zoo said it believes NeeCee initially caught the infection from a member of staff who had an asymptomatic case of COVID-19.

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In October, scientists warned that the risk of human-to-wildlife transmission of the virus is significant.

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If COVID-19 managed to infect and spread among wild animals, it could pose a threat to endangered species. As well, wild animal populations could serve as a reservoir for further virus evolution and a source of future human outbreaks.

So far, scientists have documented human-to-animal coronavirus spread on a mink farm and at the zoo, where several tigers and lions were infected.

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At home, humans have transmitted the virus to domestic cats and dogs. Some semi-feral cats in Wuhan and the Netherlands have also tested positive for antibodies triggered by a coronavirus infection.

Brooks Hays contributed to this report.

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