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Impact of Covid-19 on animal welfare
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  1. Rens van Dobbenburgh and
  2. Nancy De Briyne

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Rens van Dobbenburgh is the president of the Federation of Veterinarians in Europe (FVE)

Nancy De Briyne is the deputy executive director of FVE

COVID-19 has likely led to a huge psychological impact on people. Indeed, mental health institutions are already raising alarm bells about the levels of anxiety people are experiencing about the virus.

But it’s not just people that this crisis is affecting. Covid-19 has, or will have, an impact on the health and welfare of almost all animals.

With regards to companion animals, unfortunately some pet owners have feared contracting Covid-19 from their pets and this has led to a rise in pet abandonments in some European countries. In the UK, however, pet adoptions have actually gone up, most likely due to the fact that many people are now working from home or have been furloughed and so have more time to look after a pet. Indeed, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home revealed that during the first week of lockdown, the number of dog and cat adoptions were 86 and 69, respectively, an increase from 42 dogs and 29 cats in the same period last year.

However, this ‘new normal’ is temporary and when people return to their normal working routines there is a high likelihood of separation anxiety. To avoid this potential challenge, we recommend that owners start to prepare their pets for this eventuality; for example, by teaching them to stay on command, gradually increasing the time that they are left alone.

A second problem that has resulted from the lockdown is the postponement of non-urgent veterinary work, as only cases that were deemed most urgent were able to be dealt with. However, given the length of this crisis, we will likely see serious health and welfare problems in the long-term due to these delays.

But perhaps the most worrying impact will result from the forecasted economic recession, as owners will have fewer funds to spend on healthcare for their pets. This is particularly worrying with regards to horses, as we know that they have steep maintenance costs; in fact, researchers found that the previous economic recession in 2008/09 led to an increase in horse euthanasia and abandonment.

But it’s not just companion animals that have been affected. With regards to livestock and food production, Covid-19 has significantly challenged segments of the global food supply chain; trade was disrupted and consumer habits changed – there was a rise in people seeking cheaper and more basic ingredients to keep food costs down. Sourcing food locally became more popular as people wanted to support their local businesses and avoid supermarkets. And while the market can accommodate some of these fluctuations through food storage in warehouses, this is not possible for some fresh meat products; slumps in demand for these resulted in stock build up and some farmers not being able to sell their stock.

Another challenge for the livestock sector was the fact that abattoirs and meat packing plants became hotspots for Covid-19, with many units also closing temporarily.

Also shutting down their facilities due to lockdown restrictions were laboratories, research institutes and zoos, and they have had to find new ways to care for their animals. This has had many challenges, such as trying to meet the sudden surge in demand for transgenic mice and ferrets for use in Covid-19 research, and trying to rehome zoo animals as their high maintenance costs couldn’t be met by some facilities that had closed and no longer had visitors.

Covid-19 has had an impact on the health and welfare of almost all animals

So what can we do to overcome these impacts? The ‘Covid-19 thematic platform on animal welfare’, developed by many leading veterinary and animal welfare associations, has been created to map the impact that Covid-19 has had on animal welfare, which in turn will aid research, shape policies, and help plan for future events.

It is inevitable that this pandemic will have a lasting impact on both people and animals, but challenging times can highlight problems and allow us to question current practice – we must make sure we have contingency plans in place so that we can limit the impact that global pandemics have on animals, should a disease outbreak strike again in the future. ●

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