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Companion animals and the new coronavirus: The risk isn't what you might think

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Companion animals are in danger from the new coronavirus, but not for the reason you might think.

From the World Health Organization (WHO) website: “At present, there is no evidence that companion animals/pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with [or spread] the new coronavirus.” But the WHO also cautions that it’s always a good idea for people to wash their hands with soap and water after contact with pets to prevent common bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella from passing between pets and humans.

(You can help allay clients’ fears by downloading this graphic and sharing it on social media.)

While pets may be safe from 2019 novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, here in North America, it’s a different story for pets in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, where the super virus was first identified late last year. But those pets aren’t facing infection.

They’re facing starvation.

As many as 5 million residents fled Wuhan before the Chinese central government placed the city under lockdown on January 23, leaving an untold number of pets behind, although some estimates put the number at 50,000.

The South Morning China Post (SCMP) reports that volunteers from nearly a dozen animal-rescue groups are working to save thousands of hungry and thirsty pets whose owners were unable to return home after the lockdown. One veterinarian with the rescue group Wuhan Pet Life Online said that the group has saved more than 2,000 pets from around the city since the lockdown went into effect.

“There are [more than] 10 such groups like ours that were hastily set up following the city lockdown,” the veterinarian—who wished to remain anonymous—told SCMP. “The [rescued] pets were found in homes with no food and water. Their owners left their houses last month not expecting that they would not be able to return home. Pets are beginning to starve to death or die from thirst.”

Volunteers with the Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association are doing what they can to help the pets left behind. According to a February 1 post on the Association’s Facebook page, volunteers had managed to feed and water more than 600 pets, but those are only the pets they know about based on owners who specifically contacted the nonprofit asking for help.

2019-nCoV has claimed the lives of at least 564 people in China so far, with around 28,276 cases reported in the country, according to the latest report by the WHO, which officially declared the virus a global public health emergency on January 30.

While the news is dire on the human front, both animal-rescue volunteers and veterinary professionals in China now face additional pressures, according to the SCMP story: it quotes a source in Wuhan as saying that Chinese officials ordered all animal hospitals to close last weekend.

Photo credit: © iStock/jane