A few years ago, it was a rescue mission to save two tiny kittens from death, on Christmas eve. From the litter of four, two died and the feline mother decided to abscond, leaving the two wretched creatures struggling to survive at my doorstep. Now as one cat is curled up next to me, as I type away, and the other glaring at me, willing me to take a break from my work-from-home routine, I think it was the smartest decision.
A couple of years ago, a global pandemic forcing people to stay at home and work remotely may have been a plot plausible only in films. As the real-life screenplay of the coronavirus pandemic unfolded scene-by-scene, I took solace watching the daily shenanigans of the felines I cohabitate with.
There is plenty of scientific proof that when my cats choose to plant themselves on my laptop’s keyboard, they are helping me relieve stress. It could very well be your dog tailing you around the house or hamster scurrying around chomping on a leafy green—animal interactions can help lower blood pressure and improve your overall mental health—something one cannot take for granted during the lockdown.
But all is not well with our furry friends. Animals have been unsuspecting victims of pandemic paranoia with hundreds being abandoned, poisoned or just left out on a literal short leash to weather the elements. These mute creatures fell prey to rampant misinformation, fake news and ‘WhatsApp University’s’ lessons and controversy theories.
While there is merit in the adage ‘prevention is better than cure’—the reason why Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) put up hoardings saying, “Avoid unprotected contact with live wild and farm animals,” matters were made worse with the image of a puppy and bat were included to drive the point home. Thankfully, immediate intervention by animal rights organisations such as the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisation (FIAPO), People for Animals (PFA) and People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) led to the deletion of these messages.
But the damage was already done, not just in Mumbai, but across the country. “We saw an increase in cases of ill-treatment, where individuals were throwing stones or hitting stray dogs and cats on the road. There was also a surge of abandonment and ill-treatment of animals,” informs Pooja Sakpal, Co-founder, Youth Organisation in Defence of Animals (YODA).
After the initial disaster, authorities took a more proactive approach towards dealing with animals during the nation-wide lockdown and the COVID-19 outbreak. The Animal Welfare Board of India shared circulars with states and union territories that strays, shelter animals as well as pet shop animals need to be taken care of during lockdown. A vocal voice in was Maneka Gandhi, noted politician and animal-rights activist.
Feeders received a pass from their local police stations to ensure the stray animals are fed. Fodder and animal supplies were categorised as essential services. Citizens and organisations went the extra mile to help stray animals, now being called ‘community animals’ since they are part of the urban ecosystem we are part of. Designer Vikram Phadnis raised funds for The Welfare of Stray Dogs while Vedanta Resources tied up with YODA to feed over 10,000 stray animals (dogs/cats/cows) during this time.
Do your bit for the strays
- Foster an animal temporarily to relieve some stress on shelters; you never know you may find your new family member.
- Feed as many strays as possible, even if it is just in and around your building/society.
- There may not be enough passes available for feeders. In such a case, donate to feeders, animal welfare organisations and animal rescuers.
- Alert animal welfare organisations and animal rescuers if you find strays in your area who are in need of help.
- With the onset of summer and not enough scraps available the strays will suffer, the least you can do is put a bowl of water out for stray cats and dogs.
- Keep a bowl of water next to your window for birds.
Pursuing the paranoia
It is important to understand the cause of paranoia. It all starts with the story of a virus, Wuhan-China, wet markets and horseshoe bats. Animals including the chiropterans have always carried coronavirus strains in their systems—nature played its own role in the evolution of the virus to its current form. The spread to humans is still a question of debate, were the sale of endangered pangolins and wet markets a cause? Maybe, but ‘maybe’ is not the same as a confirmation.
This is what a veterinarian has to say. “Cats and dogs do carry strains of coronavirus, but it is not the pandemic causing COVID-19. The coronavirus strains in animals is not the same as the one wreaking havoc on human respiratory systems,” says Dr Mitali Barve, veterinarian physician at Mumbai’s Posh Pets. Did you know SARS that was rampant in 2002-03 and MERS (2012) are also coronavirus strain? They along with H1N1 were also zoonotic in nature. Your domesticated pet’s only exposure to the outside world is his routine walk, sunbathing on the windowsill and YOU. Your pets cannot spread COVID-19. Evolution is the nature of the virus and the reason why we have been so ill-prepared to battle it.
Humans at fault
The spread of COVID-19 is also a continuously evolving situation. Two dogs in Hong Kong have tested weakly positive for COVID-19, a cat in Belgium and Nadia, the tiger at Bronx Zoo in New York has tested positive for COVID-19. Most recently, two tiger cubs in Pakistan allegedly died due to the deadly virus. Incidentally, cats are more prone to the COVID-19 affliction thanks to a protein (also found in humans) that the virus latches on to. So, is this discussion moot? No, because in all of these cases, the animals contracted the disease from the humans they were in contact with. The case for social distancing cannot be made stronger than this, and it includes your pets.
Canine trainer and behaviourist Moresha Benjamin makes a case for your pets: “Coronavirus is affecting everyone, irrespective of where you are and who you are. Prevention is crucial, both, for you and your pets.” The way you are limiting social interactions to ensure you do not catch the virus, the same way you need to ensure your pet is also distanced from unnecessary exposure. After you bring your dog back from his/her daily walk, make sure you clean them—paws, fur, mouth, genitalia and tail. If you have managed to train your cat (a rare achievement) to be on a harness, the same rules will apply to them.
Quarantine care for furry friends
In case, you or someone in your home/vicinity is under quarantine, it is crucial that you keep the pet away from the area. “Animals can be fomite carriers of coronavirus if they come in contact with an infected person,” says Dr Barve further explaining that even though your pet will not catch coronavirus, but can be a carrier for the virus through their fur if they are petted or cuddled by a COVID-19 positive person (even asymptomatic ones). “You will also have to limit their exposure to other people’s pets,” she adds
How to take care of your pets during coronavirus quarantine?
- Limit your pet’s interaction with other humans and pets. For dog walks, go on shorter routes either very early in the morning or late at night.
- Maintain rigid hygiene practice for your pets.
- Do not interact with other pets and pet owners.
- Teach them new tricks and activities to help them vent their energy.
- For young pets, train them to get used to new stimuli. You can use the internet to get them used to traffic noise, firecrackers, etc, before you return to your normal routine.
- Avoid giving them excess attention and overstimulation. It will be difficult for them to cope once things go back to normal and you head back to work.
- Always remember, pets are your family members. Love and take care of them!
If you’re unable or don't know how to take care of your pets for any reason during the lockdown phase, “Please reach out to professional pet boarding facilities who can take care of them for you,” says Benjamin and suggests avoiding kennels to limit any further health hazard for your furry friend. For creatures who add a bit of sanity in these difficult times, we need to take better care of them.
Donate To Help Animal Shelters and Feeders
A list of some of the organisations you can help financially:
- Friendicoes, Delhi
- Blue Cross India, Chennai
- Animals Matter To Me, Mumbai
- Animal Rights and You, Mumbai
- Charlies Animal Rescue Centre, Bengaluru