Sunday December 04, 2022

Why Pet Hamsters Are the Latest Suspect in Coronavirus OutbreaksCoronavirus Outbreaks: Pet Hamsters are the Latest Suspect

A hamster sits in a cage in Hong Kong on January 20, 2022.Photo: Louise Delmotte (Getty Images)

You can add pet hamsters to the long list of animals known to carry the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Officials in Hong Kong say they’ve confirmed an outbreak involving hamsters and humans that was traced back to a pet shop, though it’s not clear whether these hamsters transmitted the virus to people. With much controversy, Hong Kong is now planning to cull around 2,000 imported pet hamsters and other rodents, and they’re calling for owners who recently bought these pets to submit them for testing and possible euthanasia.

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Early this week, officials at Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation department reported that at least 11 hamsters and one employee at the Little Boss pet shop in Causeway Bay had contracted the coronavirus, along with a customer who visited the store on January 7 (the customer’s husband also tested positive recently, the New York Times reported). On Thursday, they reported that two other people who visited pet stores had recently gotten infected, and infected hamsters were found at that location as well. Traces of the virus also appeared to have been found at one of the warehouses where these hamsters were being kept prior to their arrival at the store.

Officials have stressed that it’s not certain whether the hamsters were responsible for the human cases linked to the pet store. But Hong Kong has remained one of the few regions still intent on aggressively limiting the spread of the virus as much as possible. After the discovery of these cases, officials announced the culling of hamsters, guinea pigs, and other rodents across all pet shops that had been imported since December 22, 2021.

“They’re excreting the virus, and the virus can infect other animals, other hamsters and also human beings,” Thomas Sit, assistant director of Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation, told the New York Times. “We don’t want to cull all the animals, but we have to protect public health and animal health. We have no choice—we have to make a firm decision.”

Many animal species can be infected by the coronavirus, including cats, dogs, deer, and minks. And in the lab at least, hamsters have been successfully infected with the virus as well. In many of these documented cases, though, humans have been the ones responsible for the initial outbreak, and the risk of animal-to-human transmission has been considered very rare. That said, some other countries have taken similar culling measures during the pandemic. Notably, Denmark killed off its entire farmed mink population—around 17 million animals—last year following the discovery of rapidly spreading outbreaks on mink farms, along with evidence that minks had transmitted the virus back to human workers.

Denmark’s decision wasn’t universally praised at the time, and neither is Hong Kong’s. Local animal rights groups and citizens have criticized the culling along with the government’s push to have pet owners hand over any rodents imported since late December—the latest sign of tension over the Hong Kong’s zero-covid policies. Some volunteer groups are even actively trying to rescue hamsters marked for death. But for now, the government doesn’t appear to be changing tack. Yesterday, officials with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department made clear that they would oppose public efforts to save the hamsters, which could include police intervention.

Photograph by Louise Delmotte (Getty Images).

Pet hamsters can be added to the long list animals that are known to have the coronavirus SARS/CoV-2. Officials in Hong Kong claim they have confirmed an outbreak that affected hamsters as well as humans. However, it is not clear if these hamsters passed the virus to humans. Hong Kong plans to kill around 2,000 imported pet rodents and hamsters.

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Officials from Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation department announced that at least 11 hamsters and a single employee at Little Boss pet shop, Causeway Bay, had contracted the coronavirus. They also reported that a customer who visited the shop on January 7th, as well as his husband, were also infected. They reported on Thursday that two other people had been infected while visiting pet shops, and that infected hamsters had also been found at the location. The virus was also found in one of the warehouses where the hamsters were kept before they arrived at the store.
Officials stressed that it is not clear if the hamsters are responsible for the human cases related to the pet shop. Hong Kong is one of few areas that are still determined to stop the spread of the virus. Officials announced the culling all rodents imported from December 22nd, 2021, including guinea and hamsters.

“They’re exchanging the virus, and it can infect other animals, hamsters, and also humans,” Thomas Sit, assistant director at Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation, said to the New York Times. “We don’t want to kill all the animals, but it is necessary to protect animal health and public health. We don’t have any choice, we have to make a decision.
Coronavirus can infect many animal species, including cats, dogs and deer. In the laboratory, the virus has been confirmed to infect hamsters. Humans have been responsible for many of the cases. Therefore, the risk of animal-to human transmission has been considered very unlikely. Several other countries took similar culling measures during this pandemic. After discovering that the virus was spreading rapidly on mink farms and evidence that minks were transmitting the virus to humans, Denmark decimated its entire farm mink population (roughly 17 million animals) last year.

The decision of Denmark was not widely praised at the time. Hong Kong’s is also not. Local animal rights groups and citizens have criticized both the culling and the government’s push for pet owners to hand over any rodents imported from December. This is the latest sign of tension regarding Hong Kong’s zero-covid policies. Volunteer groups are actively trying to rescue hamsters that have been marked for death. The government isn’t changing its current stance. Yesterday, officials from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department stated that they will not support public efforts to save the animals. This could include police intervention.

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