Animal welfare groups in Lebanon have sought to reassure citizens that pets are not carriers of coronavirus after footage emerged over the weekend of dogs convulsing and foaming at the mouth as the result of a poison attack.
Raw meat laced with insecticides and blocks of rat poison have been found on the streets across Lebanon due to a false belief that animals could transfer the novel coronavirus to humans.
Joseph Oweiss lost his five-year-old husky-German shepherd cross named Odin on Saturday.
Oweiss told Al Arabiya English that he had warned fellow dog owners in the town of Bsalim in the Mount Lebanon governorate that he had spotted “suspicious-looking meat” when out walking Odin earlier that day.
“My suspicion was right,” he said.
On Saturday evening, Oweiss went out into his backyard to check on Odin, and saw him vomiting violently. He rushed him to a nearby animal hospital, but it was too late.
“We tried to revive him three times, but his organs failed,” Oweiss said.
Oweiss has opened an investigation with local police into what he described as a “murder,” as he believes someone threw poisoned meat into his yard to kill Odin. Neighbors also found meat in their gardens.
Under Lebanon’s animal cruelty law, passed in 2017, anyone found guilty of animal abuse could face up to two years in prison and a fine of 50 million Lebanese lira (around $33,000).
In addition to the poisoning attacks, animal rescue charities have shared pictures of dozens of dogs and cats that have been abandoned by their owners due to fears of the coronavirus.
Municipal authorities in the north Lebanon village of Btouratige issued a circular saying that “in light of the coronavirus outbreak” they would remove all stray animals from the area because “they spread diseases.”
There is no scientific evidence that pets such as cats or dogs can carry or transmit the coronavirus to humans, according to the World Health Organization.
Ghina Nahfawi, a member of Animals Activists Lebanon, told Al Arabiya English that there was a spike in animals being abandoned over the weekend, with around 20 dogs and cats found alone in the streets.
This increase followed a report by Lebanese TV channel MTV that warned members of the public to beware that their pets could pass COVID-19 to them.
On Saturday night, a push notification was sent out via MTV’s mobile app that read “Animals can transmit the coronavirus to humans, is the opposite true? Details in tonight’s bulletin.”
The item in the bulletin centered on an article published in Belgian newspaper about a cat in Belgium that tested positive for the coronavirus. The cat caught the virus from its owner, who had returned from a trip to Italy, and not the other way around.
Despite statements from the WHO and the Lebanese veterinary syndicate that the coronavirus cannot be spread from animals to humans, an epidemiologist interviewed on the program refused to confirm this.
“Anything is possible, there is new information [about the coronavirus] emerging every day,” he said.
After an organized social media campaign by animal welfare activists, MTV later retracted the notification and published an interview with the head of the country’s veterinary syndicate confirming that pets do not present a danger to their owners.
“The damage had already been done, it was too late,” Nahfawi told Al Arabiya English. “That report really had a catastrophic result.”
The Lebanese Red Cross published a video calling on owners not to abandon their pets and said they can actually help families overcome the loneliness and challenges of life under lockdown.
Dozens of people have since shared photos of their pets via social media with captions such as “I don’t transmit the virus, I only transmit love.”
“Many people don’t understand that pets aren’t just animals, they’re really just part of the family,” Owiess said.