Great, We Gave Covid-19 to Otters

Great, We Gave Covid-19 to Otters
A juvenile Asian small-clawed otter at the Singapore Zoological Garden on January 11, 2018. (Photo: Roslan Rahman, Getty Images)

Otters have joined the ever-growing list of animals known to be susceptible to the coronavirus behind covid-19. Over the weekend, officials at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta reported that several of their otters became sick with respiratory symptoms and tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Thankfully, all are expected to recover with no long-term complications.

The decision to test the aquarium’s Asian small-clawed otters for the virus came after they started showing symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, and runny noses. The aquarium’s veterinarians also reached out to state veterinarians and the department of health for their advice. But though the otters are older, and therefore more at risk for serious illness from infection, they seem to be doing just fine. At this point, it’s suspected that an asymptomatic worker transmitted the virus to the animals.

“Our Asian small-clawed otters are under very close monitoring by veterinarians and animal care team members. They have displayed only mild symptoms and we expect them all to make a full recovery,” said Tonya Clauss, vice president of animal and environmental health at Georgia Aquarium, in a statement released Sunday by the aquarium. “We are providing supportive care as needed so they can eat, rest and recover.”

This does appear to be the first known instance of otters contracting the coronavirus, but it’s not too surprising that it’s possible. Several other mammals are known to have gotten infected through contact with humans, including gorillas, dogs, cats (domestic and big), and minks. Minks in particular are in the same family as otters, a group called Mustelidae.

Unlike other animals, though, minks seem to be especially vulnerable to infection, with the virus having caused mass outbreaks and die-offs on farms. These outbreaks, and the risk of mutated strains circulating back and forth between minks and humans, prompted countries including Denmark to cull their farmed mink populations to stem the virus’s spread — a decision that didn’t go smoothly.

The otters at the Georgia Aquarium pose no risk to people, officials have said. They’ve never been in direct contact with the viewing public to begin with and have been pulled from public display for the time being. Out of an “abundance of caution,” all workers in contact with the otters have been being tested for infection as well, but the risk of animal-to-human transmission of the virus is thought to be low.