Authorities will look at “scientific evidence” before ordering the handover of pets for infectious disease control, Hong Kong’s no. 2 health official said on Thursday.
Under Secretary for Food and Health Chui Tak-yi’s comments come after health authorities amended a law last month, requiring pet owners, upon a health officer’s direction, to surrender an animal if it is believed to be, or may have been, infected with a specified infectious disease.
Failing to do so could result in penalties including fines of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,275) and six months in jail.
The move caused a major uproar among animal rights groups.
At a Legislative Council subcommittee meeting on Thursday, a number of lawmakers raised concerns about the amended legislation.
“For many owners, pets are family. [Their pets’] lives are very precious and they’ll do anything to protect the pets,” said Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong legislator Elizabeth Quat.
The lawmaker asked Chui to clarify which animals are included in the legislation and how authorities would handle the animals collected – such as testing, quarantining or culling.
In response, the undersecretary stressed that the amendment to law is to reduce the risks to public health.
Referring to the government’s culling of more than 2,000 hamsters and small animals in January after a pet shop worker was infected with the Delta variant of COVID-19, Chui said there was quite solid evidence of animal-to-human transmission of the virus on a large scale.
“The wording of this amended legislation only provides a legislative framework,” he said.
The official added there will be a process – which includes first detecting an infectious disease case of an animal, tracking the case, and an investigation showing sufficient evidence of the spread of the disease from animals to humans – before authorities take “stronger enforcement actions”.
Chui did not directly answer what animals will be included in the list and how they will be handled, but said that officials will follow up with relevant departments on the details.
A few days ago, an Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department spokesman issued a statement saying that, except for a small number of animal species such as minks and hamsters, there is currently no evidence showing that infected animals – including cats and dogs – can transmit COVID-19 to humans.
“In these circumstances, it is expected that the chance where the power [needs] to be invoked to request the owner concerned to hand over his pet is not high,” he added.
In January, when Hong Kong was hit by a wave of Delta cases, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department also strongly advised the public to surrender hamsters purchased in local pet shops around that period for culling.
Researchers from the University of Hong Kong later said some of the hamsters from the pet shop and a related warehouse were infected with the virus and had transmitted it to people.
The decision to cull them caused a public outcry, with some animal rights groups saying the hamsters and small animals could have been quarantined or isolated instead.
Some urged people not to surrender their hamsters, offering to take in the animals themselves instead.
The department later publicly condemned such actions, stressing they might pose health risks to the people concerned and the public. It also reported such cases to the police for follow-up and handling.