Amidst the chaos, disarray, and bewilderment of a global pandemic, many pet-owners across the world found themselves in a quandary about the care of their pets and the health of their loved ones. During the early days of Covid-19, owing to the lack of definitive evidence regarding animal-to-human transmission of the virus, staggering financial conditions due to the economic crisis, and restrictions imposed during lockdowns, there was an upsurge in the abandonment of pets by owners. Apart from this, stray animals also suffered greatly during the lockdown restriction and faced the threat of starvation. Animal activists found themself helpless due to movement restrictions, and shelters and NGOs were overwhelmed. Additionally, when a Pomeranian dog and a cat tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong — after their owners were positive — fears only became stronger.
Rakhi Kishore, the founder of Jeev Basera, a Lucknow based non-profit organisation working for the welfare and treatment of animals since November 2018 said that in the first phase of the lockdown, it was “heartbreaking to see owners abandoning their pets as they believed their animals were endangering their lives”. It was especially brutal for stray animals as they survive on food provided to them on the streets. With everything shut down, they would likely have died, she told this outlet.
Jeev Basera started a food drive that lasted over 100 days where they fed street dogs inhabiting commercial areas all across Lucknow. On a daily basis, they would provide meals for over 300 dogs across various areas. Additionally, dogs suffering from ailments or injuries were given proper medical care by paravets and vets who work closely with the organisation. It worked to ensure the safety and nourishment of animals and took in those who were abandoned by their owners. “A lot of false news about pets transferring Covid to humans was going around, so we began posting on social media to spread awareness and let people know this was not the case. I wouldn’t blame people for being scared, but I believe bigger organisations such as PETA, which have both a national and international outreach, could have been more proactive in spreading awareness on the issue,” Kishore said.
A PETA India spokesperson, however, told this outlet that the organisation has been doing its bit to ensure the safety and protection of animals. “PETA India urged police in several states to act against those [abandoning their pets] out of fear of contracting Covid-19 from them. Following a letter from PETA India to Assam’s director general of police, the state police headquarters issued an order to Guwahati’s commissioner of police and all district superintendents, urging them to ensure action is taken against people who abandon companion animals over unwarranted Covid fears, and cruel pet shop owners who let animals suffer in locked shops.”
The organisation has also been inundated with reports stating that lockdown restrictions have left community animals in dire need of food, and PETA India’s animal rescue team has been actively on service,” the representative confirmed.
Over a year later, things have changed. People have figured out a way to deal with the situation. Nimisha Shah, a 20-year-old college student from New Delhi, said that “the Covid scare and lack of verified information about the transmission of Covid through animals” did raise a few doubts. Nimisha has two dogs, Snowy and Skye, six years and four-month-old golden retrievers.
Ayushi Lal, a 20-year-old-college student from UP, shared her fears about her dog Coffee, a 13-year-old Doberman. “Yes, I was scared that if anything happens to me or my family members, who will take care of her? I didn’t know if she was safe from Covid herself in the beginning. There were a lot of worries.”
Another common response showed that pet owners were wary of their pets transmitting the virus through the fur, essentially becoming carriers, especially in the case of hairy dogs and cats. Namita Prasad (52), an artist and business owner from Lucknow, remarked that she was concerned about her three-year-old Chow-Chow, Joy, due to the “lack of/contradictory information” on the matter. Having kept several pets in the past, she said, “Initially, we were worried he could be a carrier. We avoided taking him for walks outside the house and walked him only on our lawn.”
Questions regarding the care of pets in case family members were infected were raised by several people. Many refrained from walking their dogs outside during the lockdown and also limited interaction with outsiders.
Many pet owners also revealed that they tried to sanitise their pets after walks. Aastha Panwar, a 20-year-old college student from Lucknow said, “Initially, we were disinfecting my dog’s paws using a mild solution every time he came back from his walks, because we were concerned about surfaces that both he and other family members touch, for example sofas, beds etc. Later, that stopped.” Her dog Dollar is a nine-year-old Labrador. “We also had to make sure we politely requested strangers — who would normally pet him during his walks — to stop doing that. If however, someone did touch his fur, we rinsed just that part using his shampoo and water,” she said.
Undoubtedly, pets have also provided essential comfort and company to their owners during this period. Ribhu Bhargava, a 28-year-old entrepreneur from Lucknow said that for Daffy, his 14-year-old German Shepherd, “it was the best time, as he got the undivided attention.” People became much more attached to their pets in the pandemic, who were the best stress-busters and companions.
Dr Manish Tewari, a veterinarian who has been practising in Lucknow since 2008, said, “The Coronavirus strain in dogs is not only different from the one in humans, but also something that they are vaccinated for at a young age. Additionally, this strain does not spread from animals to humans at all.” According to him, the Canine Coronavirus Disease (CCoV) in dogs and Feline Coronavirus (FCoV) in cats has been around for much longer, and animals are made to receive vaccinations for it. “Studies on this matter are inconclusive, and there is no definitive proof that Covid in pets can be transmitted to humans. Apart from 2-3 cases which showed up in Hong Kong at the start of the pandemic, there are less to no proper reports on this.”
As far as being carriers of the virus is concerned, the doctor said, “It may be possible that they could be carriers if an infected person pets them or sneezes or coughs near them. But this is different from them contracting the infection and passing it to a healthy human being. So, as a precaution, it is better to keep your pet away from an infected person.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) answers several such queries on its website. It lays down step-by-step instructions for the care of infected animals as well as steps to take care of pets if all members of the family are infected. Despite this, some people raised questions about the possibility of vaccination for pets and animals, as there is news that US zoos in Denver and Oakland are now giving special animal coronavirus vaccines to tigers, bears, gorillas, etc.
(The writer is an intern at Indian Express)