Health and Science

Covid outbreak in Shanghai has dogs on lockdown with their owners

Alyssa Chen and Miyasha Nulimaimaiti
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A woman carries a dog past barriers along the near-empty Nanjing Road shopping street outside of the impacted areas during Covid a lockdown in Shanghai on March 31, 2022.
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The citywide lockdown in Shanghai, the site of China's worst coronavirus outbreak in two years, is so strict that even some dogs can't go out. So their owners are bringing the outdoors to them.

For Anjo, a 2-year-old Pomeranian mix, that means a little patch of leaves and grass that Dani Chapman has cobbled together on her balcony while she watches the dog for a friend who's in quarantine.

"We've had to come up with really creative ways to encourage the dogs to use the bathroom inside," said Chapman, 32, an English teacher from Ireland who also volunteers with animal rescue groups. 

Almost all 26 million residents in Shanghai, China's largest city and financial center, are on lockdown in a major test of the country's zero-tolerance pandemic strategy, which seeks to minimize cases through border closures, mass testing, contact tracing and quarantine. On Friday, the city reported a record 21,000 new cases, almost all of them asymptomatic.

The lockdown bars residents from leaving their gated compounds and sometimes even their apartments, and the government has not said whether that applies to pets as well. Chapman said the final decision rests with each compound.

Some communities have agreed to make an exception for dog walking but others refuse or leave the rules ambiguous, meaning dogs in some parts of the city have been kept inside for almost two weeks.

"It's just all based on luck and how understanding your community committee is, which really isn't fair to the dogs," Chapman said.

Pet owners trying to follow the rules are doing their best to simulate the outdoors, which works better for some dogs than others. Like Chapman, Kyle Chen covered part of his balcony with leaves and grass for Kaka, his 4-year-old schnauzer. The dog wasn't having it. 

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As a last resort, Chen began walking Kaka secretly when no one was around, usually early in the morning or late at night.

"I've exhausted all the means," he said, adding that their surreptitious strolls had been approved by the anti-epidemic rule enforcer in his compound.

Shanghai residents confined to their homes have complained of difficulties obtaining food and medical care, concerns that pet owners say extend to animals as well. The lockdowns were originally set to last only five days, and many people were unprepared for them to be extended as testing turned up new cases. Panic buying, store closures and a shortage of delivery workers have some owners worried about what their pets will eat.

Others worry their pets will be unable to get veterinary care because many animal hospitals are closed.

"What if something urgent happens, who else could come to our aid?" said Ashley Huang, who has a 3-year-old Shetland sheepdog named Dundun.

Another issue causing pet owners distress is what happens if they or someone they know tests positive for the virus. According to Chinese government policy, Covid-19 patients and their close contacts are sent to centralized quarantine facilities, while those with more severe symptoms are hospitalized. But it's unclear what happens to their pets.

Chen said he could not imagine being separated from Kaka if he became infected.

"It is like you're letting your 4-year-old child travel alone," he said.

A simulated outdoor environment didn't work so well for Kyle Chen's 4-year-old schnauzer, Kaka. Courtesy Kyle Chen

Throughout the pandemic, there have been reports across China of pets being killed in the name of virus prevention after their owners are sent to isolation or quarantine, causing an outcry among the country's growing legion of devoted pet owners. This week, a video widely shared online appeared to show an anti-epidemic worker in Shanghai beating a corgi to death on the street after its Covid-positive owner had been taken away.

After seeing the video, "who will not start to worry about what their pets are going to suffer if they test positive?" Huang said.

The incident was similar to one in Jiangxi province in November, when a woman shared video from a home security camera of two anti-epidemic workers beating her corgi to death while she was in quarantine.

There is little risk of animals spreading the virus to people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By contrast, the southern city of Shenzhen, which recently underwent a weeklong lockdown, has set up China's first "pet cabin," a space of about 16,000 square feet that can accommodate about 300 pets for free to ease the concerns of owners who are in isolation or quarantine. Shanghai residents have appealed to the government to establish something similar.

Chen said there would be less panic if the government made the arrangements crystal clear.

"Because we will be secure in the knowledge of how our pets will be treated," he said.