Vet Ethics: COVID-19 and its effects on animals

The current pandemic has caused impacts on nonhuman animals as well as human beings. COVID-19 has affected animals in the wild, on farms, in zoos, and in households around the world. Some of these impacts were direct, others more indirect.

Some slaughterhouses were closed due to the easy spread of COVID-19 among meat workers. The closure of meat plants meant that some animals were subjected to cruel forms of killing. In the US, for example, millions of hens were suffocated by a water-based foam similar to foam used to fight fires.

In Europe and elsewhere, some animals, such as pigs, were culled on farms by inhumane methods such as gassing, electrocution, and blunt force trauma. It was reported that such culling caused mental distress and hardship for farmers.

The transmissibility of COVID-19 to mink, and the risk of transmission back to humans, also result in mass killings. Mink are often kept in packed conditions, making spread of disease more likely. There were concerns that the virus can mutate in the animals before re-infecting humans. 

Due to these risks, Denmark culled millions of mink in late 2020. As one veterinary professor said, “people don’t have the close attachment to minks they might dogs. If the animal isn’t a common pet or an endangered zoo animal, there’s less outrage when it’s killed.”

COVID-19 also led to animal testing and experimentation. Pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson trialled their vaccines on animal subjects. Some politicians claimed that animal trials were largely not done due to animals dying from the vaccines. However, animal and human trials of the vaccine were sometimes run at the same time.

Other research aimed to find out if various animal species contracted the disease. A significant number of a species were deliberately infected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised that:

“Recent experimental research shows that many mammals, including cats, dogs, bank voles, ferrets, fruit bats, hamsters, mink, pigs, rabbits, racoon dogs, tree shrews, and white-tailed deer can be infected with the virus. Cats, ferrets, fruit bats, hamsters, racoon dogs, and white-tailed deer can also spread the infection to other animals of the same species in laboratory settings.”

Various nonhuman primates became ill after being infected with SARS-CoV-2 in laboratories. A less direct but still real harm occurred when animals in labs were culled due to lack of staff and access to facilities during the pandemic.

One problem for companion animals was difficulty in finding timely medical care given veterinary clinic shutdowns, reductions in work hours, and personnel shortages. Preventative care may have suffered. Many clients also experienced financial disadvantage, which has impacts on animal health and can drive abandonment or economic euthanasia.

It was reported that animals could get entangled in PPE, including masks and gloves. Such animals included penguins, which ingested masks, and fish, which could become trapped in plastic gloves. Dogs were also found to have swallowed PPE.

There was said to be increases in hunting wild animals during the crisis. Poaching also occurred when people who relied on tourism lost sources of income.

On the more positive side, some animals benefited from the pandemic. More than usual numbers of animals were fostered or adopted as companions during lockdowns. They may also have benefited from extra time with human beings in the home and on walks. 

Some veterinarians have, however, pointed to an increased risk of separation anxiety or increased isolation when people return to work. Still, new working arrangements are currently being negotiated for many employees. A greater ability to work from home may benefit humans and animals alike.

One might speculate that at least some animals kept in zoos could have benefited without the constant attention of zoogoers. Some of the most striking images of the pandemic came from wild animals, like boar, cougars, and deer, who were found to be wandering into zones that they might normally avoid, such as cities and suburbs. 

Animals profited at times from a reduction in atmospheric pollution, and also in noise pollution. Less anthropogenic noise means, for example, that animals can communicate much better with each other. Birds began to sing more quietly without traffic noises to contend with. And without the constant din in the ocean from shipping and drilling, whales became less stressed.

We have learned many things from the pandemic, one of which is the substantial and widespread effects on many animals. As some have argued, such lessons could make us better prepared for future pandemics and their impacts on animals and people.


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