No animals at the Maryland Zoo have gotten covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, since the pandemic started more than a year ago. But the vaccine will “add another layer of protection for the animals in our care,” Ellen Bronson, senior director of animal health, conservation and research at the Maryland Zoo, said in a statement.
The Maryland Zoo is one of 70 zoos, sanctuaries and conservatories in the United States getting the coronavirus vaccine donated from Zoetis, a publicly traded drug company headquartered in Parsippany, N.J. Zoetis makes medicines and vaccines for livestock and pets. It was previously a subsidiary of the huge pharmaceutical company Pfizer before it spun off and became a separate entity.
At the National Zoo in the District, a spokeswoman said Tuesday that its veterinarians have plans to use vaccines from Zoetis — depending on their availability — this fall for some of its animals at its facility in Northwest Washington and at its sister location, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia.
Maryland Zoo officials said the vaccine will be rolled out for “species that have been proven to be susceptible to covid-19,” starting with great apes and big cats, as they’ve been found to be at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Exactly how do you give a shot to a busy chimp or a lion or a cheetah?
Carefully and by training it.
Bronson said “many of these animals are trained to participate in their own health care, meaning they willingly work with the animal care team and veterinary technicians to receive injections.” She said sometimes animals will even “allow blood to be drawn” and have ultrasounds done when they’re awake.
By training the animals, she said, it avoids experts having to use anesthesia for minor procedures.
John Flanders Jr., an associate veterinarian at the Maryland Zoo, said most of the animals getting the vaccine have been trained to take injections voluntarily, and for those who may need to be anesthetized, it will be done when they have their regular annual exams.
“Chimps are trained to lean up against the mesh and hold their shoulder there while a needle is injected,” Flanders said. Even the cheetahs, the leopard and bobcats are trained to put forward their shoulder or a hip to get a shot.
The animals will need two coronavirus vaccine doses, several weeks apart, experts said. Once the animals are vaccinated at the Maryland Zoo, Bronson said, they’ll be closely monitored for any side effects.
Zoetis said it has given more than 11,000 doses of its coronavirus vaccines for animals to zoos and other animal care facilities in 27 states in the country. Its vaccine can be used in roughly 100 mammal species, experts said. The company’s vaccine is authorized for use on a case-by-case basis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state veterinarians, said a company spokeswoman.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus can infect mammals. There have been several cases of animals at zoos getting sick, and many experts said they typically got the virus after being in close contact with humans who had it. Animal experts have been most worried about orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees catching the coronavirus because they are susceptible to many illnesses that affect humans, and a simple cold can be deadly for them.
Across the country, some zoos have started to vaccinate their animals against the coronavirus.
Last week, officials at the Zoo Atlanta said some of their gorillas tested positive for the coronavirus, and they have plans to vaccinate them once they’re better.
Some pets such as dogs, cats and ferrets have also been infected.
Zoetis officials said their experts started working on a coronavirus vaccine for animals in February 2020 after they first heard about dogs getting infected with the virus in Hong Kong.
Christina Lood, a spokeswoman for Zoetis, said the company has not heard of any “significant adverse reactions” in animals that have received the coronavirus vaccine.
“We all want to make sure we protect our animal friends and this is one way we can keep them safe from covid,” Lood said.