Coronavirus: People in Turkey are abandoning their pets due to animal-to-human transmission rumors

A stray dog walks into an empty lot in San Jose, Costa Rica, April 22, 2016. In a lush, sprawling corner of Costa Rica, hundreds of dogs roam freely on a hillside - among the luckiest strays on earth. Fed, groomed and cared for by vets, more than 750 dogs

The coronavirus pandemic situation is proving to be just as hard for animals as it is for human beings. Millions of stray dogs and cats have been deprived of food due to the lack of human activity and hotels and eateries either shut down or not throwing enough leftovers due to the lockdowns in place. Now, even domesticated pets don't seem to be that safe. Just like humans, they too have become victims of rumors surrounding COVID-19.

There have been several reports of people protesting against the burial of the bodies of people who've died of the virus, in some cases even disowning the bodies of their own relatives, out of fear of contagion. Similarly, people are increasingly abandoning their pets because of a recent "unproven claim" that suggests animals can pass the disease onto humans.

Pets being abandoned in Turkey

The disturbing trend has been gaining ground in Turkey where an increasing number of pets are being abandoned while strays are being left to starve, as the country's coronavirus crisis deepens, according to animal rights activists.

Misleading media reports and misconceptions surrounding the COVID-19 disease have caused many people in the country to believe that their domesticated animals, including dogs and cats, can pass on the contagion to them, according to an AP report.

100 dogs abandoned in forest near Istanbul

Around 100 dogs have reportedly been abandoned in a suburban forest near Istanbul, the epicenter of the pandemic in Turkey with over 60 percent of the country's total cases reported from the country's most populous city.

Turkish animal rights activists see increase in calls

Animal rights activists in the country have reported a 20 percent increase in the number of dogs fending for themselves since the pandemic started in the country in March, according to AP.

"There has been about a 20 percent increase. People abandon their pets outside of our offices or call us and ask whether they should be leaving them to us or give them to animal shelters," Penlin Sayilgan, representative for Turkish Animal Rights Federation Haytap in the country's capital Ankara, told local media.

Apart from Ankara and Istanbul, animal rights activists in other large Turkish cities including, Eskisehir and Bursa also report similar trends. Emre Demir, an activist in Bursa, said his animal rights association is seeing at least a 20 percent increase in the number of calls by people asking where they should leave their animals, since the pandemic began.

Street dogs and cats starving due to lockdown

Another major concern during the pandemic is that many street animals do not get enough food to survive due to the lockdown imposed on cities and towns.

Turkish media reports cite one activist suggesting that the closure of many businesses, including hotels and restaurants, was the main reason for the strays going without food for days as there was no leftover food for them.

Although, some concerned people are venturing out of their homes defying curfews and lockdowns to feed the animals, activists suggest that it is the duty of the municipalities to ensure that the animals don't starve.

"Many animals are hungry, Municipalities have a legal duty to feed these animals. But not many of them are sensitive about it. People cannot get inside the forests or parks due to the curfew," said Haydar Ozkan, Deputy Chairman of Turkey's Animal Rights to Live Confederation known as HayKonFed.

Why are people really orphaning pets in Turkey?

The growing trend of people abandoning their pets in Turkey seems be a consequence of the crisis that the country is facing due to the pandemic.

Turkey's total COVID-19 cases surpassed the 100,000 mark, making it the country with the highest number of infections outside Europe and the US. It currently ranks seventh globally in the number of coronavirus cases. The alarming numbers have prompted the Turkish government to tighten restrictions, forcing businesses, including hotels and restaurants, to shutter down leaving millions of workers uncertain of returning to their jobs.

The uncertainty has impacted the Turkish economy deeply and people do not have enough money to lead a normal life like they would before the pandemic. It's not just financial concerns, but also a lack of information and misconceptions about the virus that are pushing the Turks to part ways with their pets.

"It is thought that they carry the coronavirus and people are afraid. But there's no such thing," the AP report quoted another animal rights activist Tugay Abukan as saying.

Coronavirus doesn't transmit from animals

A rumor that animals could spread coronavirus to humans is still unproven and a common misconception. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) have repeatedly said that the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads only through human to human transmission, and not from animals to humans.

"To date, there is no evidence that companion animals have spread the disease. Therefore, there is no justification in taking measures against companion animals which may compromise their welfare," the OIE had said in a statement.

No evidence that animals can infect humans

Professor Murat Arsalan, who heads the Istanbul Chamber of Veterinarians, said the association had received lots of reports of abandoned animals.

"People abandon cats, dogs, even their birds while there is no scientific evidence that they can infect humans," he said in a report published by Turkey's Deemirôren News Agency (DHA) on Friday April 24.

Virus can spread from humans to animals, but not vice versa

Although there have been some reports of the virus being transmitted from humans to dogs and cats, including the case of a dog being infected by its hospitalized owner in Hong Kong which attracted a lot of media attention in February, the trend has not been the other way around.

China's Harbin Veterinary Research Institute also suggested that cats are susceptible to catch the virus from humans, but said that there was no evidence that the felines could pass on the virus to people.

Coronavirus patients should avoid contact with animals

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USCDC) in its COVID-19 guideline advises owners with coronavirus should avoid contact with their pets just as they avoid contact with other humans.

"When possible, have another member of your household care for your animals while you are sick. Avoid contact with your pet, including, petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked, and sharing food," the CDC advisory states.

There's still hope for Turkey's strays and pets

Many Turks have taken to social media to call upon fellow citizens to feed the stray animals to prevent them from starving during the lockdowns, and many people have been doing that regularly despite the restrictions.

Istanbul Chamber of Veterinarians and the other animal rights organizations such as Haytap and HayConFed are mobilized to pick up abandoned animals and place them in animal shelters. Authorities in large cities like Istanbul and Ankara have even established food rooms to feed animals in need.

Earlier this month, the Turkish Interior Ministry issued a circular urging local administrations and municipalities to feed stray animals affected by the country's social distancing and lockdown policies which have been placed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Nonsense needs to stop

Activists in the city of Kutahya complain that veterinarians in the city refuse to go to the animal shelters to provide emergency operations and that this nonsense needs to be stopped.

"These are animals accustomed to life at home, and life on the street is problematic for them," Professor Murat Arsalan of Istanbul Chamber of Veterinarians, said adding that abandonment also affects the mental health of the animals.

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