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COVID-19 tiger: Animal Planet show explains how Nadia was tested and what happens now

Bill Keveney
USA TODAY

How do you test a tiger for the coronavirus?

The Bronx Zoo's chief veterinarian explains the testing process for Nadia, the four-year-old Malayan tiger whose positive test for the coronavirus this week drew international attention, in a 10-minute update on Animal Planet's "The Zoo" this Saturday (9 EDT/PDT).

But first, the big news: Nadia and six other big cats showing symptoms of COVID-19 are on the mend, Dr. Paul Calle says.

"Fortunately, Nadia and the other tigers and all the lions are showing daily progressive signs of improvement. And we expect full recoveries for all of them," Calle says in a video that will be part of Saturday's episode of the Animal Planet series, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at the Bronx Zoo.

Nadia, the Bronx Zoo tiger that tested positive for the coronavirus, is expected to make a full recovery.

Nadia was tested after her sister Azul, two Amur tigers and three African lions developed a dry cough. On Sunday, the Bronx Zoo and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced three labs had confirmed a positive COVID-19 test for Nadia, who had a cough and mild loss of appetite. 

In the upcoming episode, Calle explains the process, which is a bit more complex than the drive-up procedure undertaken by many human subjects.

"To do the test, it's similar to how people get tested, but of course Nadia was under general anesthesia and we obtained swabs from her nose, the back of her throat and fluid from her lungs," Calle says. "Then, all of those samples were sent to the veterinary labs for testing. The veterinary laboratories did confirm that Nadia was infected with the same virus that's affecting people."

Animal health:Bronx Zoo tiger becomes first of its kind to test positive for coronavirus, officials say

Animal medical experts are adapting to the positive test, the first known instance of a tiger being infected with the virus.

"This wasn't supposed to happen to lions and tigers and other big cats, so now we are writing the book about what happens when a lion or tiger gets infected by coronavirus," Calle says.

Calle previously reported the big cats were infected after coming into contact with one or more asymptomatic staff members. The zoo has enacted new policies to protect the animals.

"We are practicing social distancing with our wild cats as well. We're not interacting closely with them and the keepers are wearing masks and coveralls and measures are in place to prevent infection of the cats," he says.

Saturday's episode will feature experts from other Animal Planet shows, including "Extinct or Alive" wildlife biologist Forrest Galante explaining how COVID-19 connects to wildlife and Dr. Jeff Young of "Dr. Jeff: Rocky Mountain Vet" discussing if and how the virus affects pets.  

An April 5 USDA statement about Nadia's positive test said there have been no reports of pets becoming sick with COVID-19 in the U.S., but that anyone who has the illness should restrict contact with animals until more is known about the virus.

The Bronx Zoo has been closed to the public since mid-March. The first tiger began showing signs of sickness on March 27.