Coronavirus: UAE pet owners consider abandoning animals over unfounded fears of infection

Vets and doctors say there is no chance domestic pets could catch and pass on illness

A dog wears a paper cup over its mouth on a street in Beijing on February 4, 2020. The number of total infections in China's coronavirus outbreak has passed 20,400 nationwide with 3,235 new cases confirmed, the National Health Commission said on February 4. / AFP / GREG BAKER

Pet owners in the UAE are surrendering their animals to rescuers over unfounded fears that they could spread the coronavirus.

Rescue charity Kittysnip said it received nine inquiries in one day this week from frightened pet owners.

Similar fears in China have reportedly led to owners throwing their pets out of tower blocks, with pictures emerging of the animals' corpses on the streets.

It started after a rumour circulated on China’s social media platform, Weibo, suggested pets could spread the virus.

The World Health Organisation has already clarified the issue, saying: “There is no evidence that companion animals or pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with the new coronavirus."

Vets have also dismissed the concerns, saying it was not possible for cats and dogs to contract the rapidly spreading illness, which has infected more than 24,000 people in China and killed almost 500 across the country.

It is surprising how easily the information can be twisted

But rescuers said the rumours persisted regardless.

Carol Ann Geldenhuys, who runs Kittysnip, said one lady asked whether she had to put her cat to sleep, and another pleaded with her to take their cat because they did not want their children to contract the illness.

Ms Geldenhuys feared the queries were just the start.

“It’s a nightmare," she said. "Those are the ones that are contacting us. I dread to think of the others who are just tossing their animals out on the streets.”

Ms Geldenhuys said she tried to explain that there was no truth in the rumour but the pet owner could not be persuaded.

The World Health Organisation said on its Weibo account there was no evidence that dogs, cats and other pets could catch the new coronavirus. Courtesy WHO

“They said, 'No, no, we read you can and we have little children'," she said.

"We are talking about taking the cat in but where do we stop? We are already sitting with 48 foster cats in homes at the moment. We are bursting at the seams.

“If we accept one, when the floodgates open, how many more could we take in than we already have?”

Tracey Hughes, who runs Rescue in Abu Dhabi, said the charity had no such requests yet, but had answered many people’s worries about touching and feeding stray cats because of the coronavirus.

“All our own feeders understand but some people in the general public are worried," Ms Hughes said.

“Unfortunately, one person said he would have all our dogs removed in Mussaffah.”

Scientists believe the coronavirus may have started in bats and jumped to an intermediate host, possibly snakes, which then infected humans at a market in Wuhan that sold dead and live animals.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , Feb 5  – 2020 :- Carol Ann Geldenhuys with abandoned cats near her home in Dubai Investment Park in Dubai. ( Pawan  Singh / The National ) For News. Story by Gillian

Bats are known to harbour more than 60 illnesses that can infect humans, including Sars and Mers, which are close cousins of the new coronavirus.

Vets say that while cats can transmit diseases to people, including salmonella, coronavirus is not one of them.

“Cats and dogs have their own viral diseases in the family of coronavirus but these are not zoonotic, so therefore cannot infect humans,” said Dr Steve Tigere of Pets Oasis Abu Dhabi Veterinary Clinic.

“It is surprising how easily the information can be twisted.”

Dr Dieter Malleczeck, of Blue Oasis Veterinary Clinic, said there was no evidence domestic animals were the source of the human disease.

"The feline coronavirus, known as FIP, has never been documented crossing over to any other species," Dr Malleczeck said.

The virus shares a 79.5 per cent similarity to Sars, which is also believed to have emerged from a "wet market" in China and killed almost 10 per cent of infected patients.

“Even though this current virus may have come from animals, there is no proof domestic pets can transmit it,” said Dr Saheer Sainalabdeen, a pulmonologist at Medeor Hospital in Dubai.

“Even in 2002 and 2003, during the Sars outbreak, the WHO said domestic animals are not a source of infection.”

But Dr Sainalabdeen said it was important to practise good hand hygiene around domestic pets because they can be a source of bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella, which can be passed to people.

“It is always better to wash your hands with soap and water after contact,” he said.