Disease, exotic pets remain center of controversies

While Chinese scientists were reporting that a near-twin of the SARS virus had been discovered, the Chinese government was lifting its ban on selling the exotic animals suspected as carriers.

A coronavirus that was 99.8 percent genetically identical to the one causing severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in humans was discovered in wild animals being sold for food in China. Some of the animals included civets, raccoon-dogs and ferret badgers.

“Our findings suggest that the markets provide a venue for the animal (coronavirus) viruses to amplify and transmit to new host, including humans, and this is critically important from the point of view of public health,” said Chinese researchers in a Sept. 5 Associated Press report.

Just three weeks earlier, the Chinese government had decided to lift the ban on selling these animals to markets, after the World Health Organization declared on July 5 that the SARS outbreak was over. But on Sept. 9, NewScientist.com reported that a Singapore man was diagnosed with a low-grade case of SARS.

Even though no SARS-related viruses have been diagnosed in domestic felines, North American pet owners have been confused by reports naming the civet cats as a possible carrier. A civet is not actually a cat, but rather is related to the mongoose and considered a winter delicacy in China.

The fear that trade in exotic animals, either for food or for pets, will spark new outbreaks in human diseases is prompting some U.S. state governments to make their own stand.

Following the monkeypox outbreak last spring, Indiana issued an emergency ban on the sale and distribution of animals that might carry the monkeypox virus. Now, the ban is set to expire in October.

In a Sept. 8 Indianapolis Star article, Dr. Sandra Norman, companion animal and equine director at the Indiana Board of Animal Health, said state officials are investigating permanent rules to govern the sale and distribution of exotic pets. That will include a more specific definition of what constitutes an “exotic pet.”

For the latest information on SARS, monkeypox and West Nile Virus, see the Centers for Disease Control website.