COVID-19 patients and their close contacts who own pets face one additional grim reality: Their pets may become collateral victims of this pandemic.
Since the start of COVID-19, there has been heartbreaking news about pets being euthanized or even brutally killed after their owners were sent to hospitals or quarantine facilities. Early this month a video clip showing a community worker in a city repeatedly clubbed a Samoyed to death went viral on social media. After the video attracted a public outcry, the subdistrict office in that city offered an apology to the dog owner, who was centrally quarantined after her boyfriend contracted the coronavirus, saying the dog had highly likely been infected as environmental samples in the warehouse where the dog lived had tested positive. The office suspended the worker from duty, admitting that he had acted inappropriately and violently.
Before the Samoyed incident, there had been reports about cats and dogs in several other cities being put to death without the consent of their owners, for fear they could spread the coronavirus.
Panicking reactions during the early days of the pandemic were understandable as people knew little about the virus. However, we are now in the third year of the pandemic and should be able to come out with more sensible, humane approaches when handling pets.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's possible for animals to get COVID from people, but chances of animals spreading the virus to humans are low. Lu Hongzhou, a member of the disease control and prevention experts' committee under the National Health Commission, told CCTV in November that pets owned by COVID patients should be quarantined, rather than killed, as there is no evidence that they can spread coronavirus to humans, and they should be released from isolation once they are found to be free of the virus.
Even though the possibility of pets spreading coronavirus to humans cannot be ruled out, they should not be arbitrarily killed just because their owners were diagnosed with COVID.
Some government departments in Shenzhen have begun to take scientific approaches in handling issues regarding pets. After an intervention by the Shenzhen Municipal Health Commission, a hotel in Bao'an District agreed in early March to take care of two cats owned by a COVID patient until he recovers. The patient had earlier been told that the two pets had to be euthanized because he tested positive.
Futian District has also taken an initial step in solving the problem arising from unattended pets. The district last week launched its first "pet hostel" for pets left alone at home by their COVID-hit owners. Pet owners infected with COVID-19 who live in Futian or who are under quarantine in the district can now contact the pet hostel – located in a pet care center managed by the New Ruipeng Pet Healthcare Group in Jingtian – for help.
Currently there are no official protocols on handling pets left alone at homes of COVID patients or their close contacts. Such protocols are badly needed to guide community workers who are tasked with epidemic control.
Legal education is also warranted because some grassroots epidemic control officials and community workers misunderstand the stipulations of the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law that authorize the killing of poultry and livestock under an epidemic. Legal experts have pointed out that pets should not be considered as livestock and should not be culled under the law.
The traditional views that regard pets as part of the owners' belongings or property also need to be changed. In some people's views, and as suggested by some laws and regulations dealing with the penalties in association with the thefts, injuries and deaths of pets, pets are just something that can be replaced with a new one at a cost of perhaps hundreds or thousands of yuan.
The owner of the Samoyed that was clubbed to death said she considered the dog, who had been her companion for more than three years, to be a member of her family and its tragic death was a tremendous loss to her, even more so given the brutal way it was killed. She is not alone in including a pet into the family bond. Most pet lovers have deep emotional attachments to their dogs or cats and such bonds will only grow when people live in pandemic-induced isolation.
Community workers face exhaustive tasks to protect people's health as they go all out to battle the virus. Scientific and humane protocols in handling pets, if made available, will make their job easier, rather than more difficult, because they will have clear instructions to follow, and avoid stepping into a legal quagmire arising out of any mistreatment of pets. Such protocols will also relieve the stress of pet owners. Taking good care of pets also means taking good care of the people who raise them.
(The author is a deputy editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily.)