Pets Are Being Abandoned in China Because of the Coronavirus Lockdown

A woman plays with her dogs at a park in Beijing in late February. Many pets have been abandoned during the coronavirus outbreak. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

People aren't the only victims of the coronavirus making its way around the globe. In China, where the outbreak started, thousands of homeless pets wander the streets or are starving in their homes.

The virus — known as COVID-19 — has sickened more than 94,000 people and killed more than 3,100 people around the globe. In China, travel restrictions and lockdowns have closed business and factories, forcing millions of people to self-quarantine in their homes, some since mid-January. Some people were able to flee before the lockdowns were put in place. Others weren't able to return to their homes before the rules were enacted.

Abandoned and stray pets have become unwitting victims of the virus.

Where are the abandoned pets coming from?

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, was where the outbreak started. There have been more than 2,800 deaths in the province since the virus was first discovered.

The virus first began to surface in late December but it became worse in early January as people began to travel for Chinese New Year. Some people went away to visit friends and relatives. They left a little food behind for their pets, thinking they would only be gone for a few days, the BBC reports. In addition, animal rescuers say the holiday is unfortunately a common time for some people to abandon their animals so they don't have to care for them while they're gone.

Then as the coronavirus outbreak intensified, more than 60 million people were placed in lockdown. Many of the people who were away were unable to return to their homes and to their pets, Those dogs and cats were trapped in their homes and their food began to run out.

Likewise, some people were unable to leave their homes due to the lockdowns. They didn't have enough food to feed themselves and their pets, so some of them turned their pets out on the streets, hoping they'd fare better fending for themselves.

Who's helping China's dogs?

Volunteers have been scooping stray pets off the streets, but rescue operations have been swamped by the number of dogs and cats they've found.

"It's very concerning," Mary Peng, founder of the International Center for Veterinary Services clinic in Beijing, tells Time. "China’s animal shelters are generally unlicensed and run by good Samaritans and they are completely overwhelmed."

People who can't get back into their homes are reaching out on social media, pleading for help to feed their pets.

"If we don't offer help, the dogs and cats would have decomposed at home before their owners got home," said Du Fan, president of the Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association, China Daily reports. "It's our responsibility to help the animals."

The group has dozens of volunteers who enter the homes, feed and care for the animals and provide medical help if necessary. The rescuers take video or do a video chat with the owners when they arrive so they can see their pets are OK.

As many as 50,000 pets have been left alone at home in Wuhan, estimates a man who gives his name as Lao Mao. His group has helped at least 1,000 animals and said the situation now is "very dangerous" for them.

"There are more animals needing help these days," he told the BBC. "So many of them have starved to death, only a few of them can reach me for help. There's nothing much I can do but I will save as many as I can."

Pet ownership in China

Stray dog in China
Stray dogs have always been a problem in China, but now their numbers are overwhelming. aaabbbccc/

China's relationship with animals is a complicated one. Only recently has pet ownership become popular, according to Time, with a reported 150 million pets now part of the nation's population.

But China is home to the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival where thousands of dogs and cats are slaughtered and eaten. China is also known for wet markets — places where people can buy all sorts of exotic live animals to eat and where the coronavirus is believed to have originated. Scientists believe the virus may have originated in an animal like a bat, pangolin or snake and spread to humans.

Because of this social dichotomy, in the age of coronavirus many people looked to dogs and cats as scapegoats. Fear of animal-to-people transmission caused some people to cast their pets onto the streets.

Coronavirus and dogs

A Chinese woman holds her dog on a Beijing street in February 2020.
A Chinese woman holds her dog on a Beijing street in February 2020. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Fears about pets have been stoked by the fact that the pet dog of a coronavirus patient in Hong Kong tested "weakly positive" for the virus. It was believed to be the first time a dog tested positive for the virus. The dog had no symptoms, but was put into quarantine and will undergo more testing, according to a statement from Hong Kong's Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD)..

Experts doubt that the Pomeranian is actually infected, but believe it might have tested positive due to "environmental contamination" of its mouth and nose. The germs could have been living on the dog's nose or mouth, just like they can live on other surfaces like a doorknob or a countertop.

Despite the dog testing positive, the AFCD and the World Health Organization agree there's no evidence that pets such as cats or dogs can be infected with coronavirus.

Although the virus has caused an overwhelming surge in animal abandonments and fear, the one bright spot is that rescuers and volunteers are working together to save these pets. An experienced rescuer in Shenzhen who did not want to give her name told the BBC that people have joined forces like never before to help animals in need.

"Community support has been really heart-warming, many people help, volunteer, support and share or decide to adopt or foster," she said. "Both Chinese people and foreigners have united to help each other help animals."