Even before the coronavirus hit, economic troubles and rising prices in Lebanon had led to an increasing number of pets dumped on the streets.
But since the virus appeared in Lebanon, rescuers have seen a spike in the numbers of dogs and cats abandoned.
“I can say on the ground we’re seeing an increase of 30 to 40 percent in dumped animals on the streets in Lebanon,” Ali Ammar, one of the founders of Perpetual Animal Watch (PAW), a Lebanese animal rescue and advocacy NGO, told Al Arabiya English.
As he was speaking, the group had just found a stray puppy on the Rafic Hariri University Hospital grounds where coronavirus patients have been treated.
While rising prices are certainly a factor – Ammar said the cost of caring for his own dogs has risen by 50 percent since last year – fears of pets spreading COVID-19 have considerably worsened the issue.
A spate of poisoning incidents followed a report by Lebanese TV channel MTV last month that suggested animals could transmit the virus to humans. Although the station later retracted the statement, and WHO and the Lebanese veterinary syndicate officials have made multiple public statements that there is no evidence the virus can be spread from pets to humans, many pet owners panicked.
“After hearing the news, the second day, we had a lot of people calling us and saying, ‘I don’t want to have my dog anymore, I don’t want to have my cat anymore, I’m afraid, I have kids at home,’” Ammar said. The organization has launched a social media campaign to try to dispel the rumors.
Fouad el Hajj, a veterinarian in Hazmieh, a suburb of Beirut, who often treats rescued dogs and cats, said he has seen a similar trend and believes the spike in abandoned dogs and cats was a direct result of the MTV report.
“In this time, I received every day maybe more than 50 calls, ‘Can dogs and cats transmit (the virus)?’” he said.
Another potential factor in the increased number of pets abandoned, although Hajj said it is likely a less significant one, is the dramatic increase in prices of pet products as a result of Lebanon’s currency crisis. A 15-kilogram bag of high-end dog food that used to cost 150,000 Lebanese lira (around $99) is now 300,000 lira, and some products have disappeared from the market altogether because of the dollar shortage and rapid inflation of the lira.
“Some companies stopped giving us food. Why? Because if he will sell to you today (in lira), if he will take the money after one week, it will be increasing by maybe 20 percent or 30 percent, and they will lose their profit,” he said. “All the companies now bringing food, they need cash dollars.”
Hajj said his office has been taking a loss on giving vaccines rather than raise prices to keep up with inflation.
“We took a decision that we will lose from our profit and we will give a good price so people will continue to give vaccines to their pets,” he said. “We are losing money, but it’s better to lose money, not to lose animals.”
Hala Nasrallah, a journalist living in Beirut’s southern suburbs who feeds stray cats in the neighborhood and sometimes rescues injured strays, said she has begun cooking chicken and rice for the cats and blending it with a small amount of dry food to save money.
Apart from the cost, Nasrallah said she is now also running into problems with the neighbors because of their coronavirus fears, particularly after she set up a box for a stray mother cat and her kittens outside her apartment (she and her mother have three cats of their own inside).
“Several times my neighbor called me and told me, ‘They will bring corona, those cats bring corona,’ and also my neighbor upstairs would come to the house and knock on the door, and say, ‘Your cats are going to bring sickness to the building,’” she said. Although the kittens are still young, she said, “I have to find them homes to protect them because I’m afraid someone will come and poison them.”
On the flip side, while coronavirus fears may be leading to more animals on the street, some rescuers reported that it was easier to find foster or adoptive homes for rescued animals during the coronavirus quarantine, with many people stuck indoors and with time on their hands.
“Many, many people are sending me emails that they wish to adopt a dog,” Soraya Zattar Mouawad, who runs another rescue NGO, Animals Pride and Freedom (APAF), told Al Arabiya English.
Sarwat Elasmar, a dog trainer who owns a kennel and training facility behind Hajj’s veterinary office, said he has also been receiving an increasing number of calls from people interested in adopting.
“There are some people who are a bit stupid who are dumping dogs now, but there are more who are rescuing them,” he said.
However, Mouawad said she has some concerns that when the quarantine lifts, people who have adopted pets will find they no longer have time to care for them.
She said she tells potential adopters, “You are feeling lonely… It’s good that you’re thinking to give a chance to a pet, but later on will you be able to have time for this pet?”