Hamsters & COVID-19: What You Need To Know

The ruthless mass-killing of animals for human purposes is nothing new, but it rarely seems so personal as it did last month when the Hong Kong government ordered the “disposal” of more than 2,000 companion hamsters. In an effort to save lives, thousands of people in Hong Kong offered to adopt the furry individuals from those who were either dutifully handing them over to the authorities or no longer wanted them. As one rescuer told the Guardian, “a hamster life is still a life and that’s what a lot of volunteers are thinking.”

Despite their attempts, at least 2,200 hamsters and other small furries were reportedly killed in yet another tragic example of how little we value animal lives. It seems reasonable to assume that all, or at least some, of the hamsters, could have been quarantined, yet even those who might not even have been carrying the virus were sentenced to death. To make the situation all the more absurd, scientists have been administering doses of the virus to Syrian hamsters since the beginning of the pandemic, first to test the efficacy of masks and then to develop vaccines. Measures that minimize the risk of infected hamsters spreading the virus must therefore exist. 

That aside, the recent cull has left many of us wondering what this ongoing global pandemic now means for other hamsters and the people who care for them. Here are five things you need to know about Covid-19 in hamsters:

1) You're highly unlikely to catch Covid from a hamster

If you’re worried about becoming ill with Covid, you can rest assured that there is little to no chance of catching the virus from your hamster at home. “Millions of people around the world have pets, and there have been no cases proven of pets transmitting the infection to other humans,” Vanessa Barrs, professor of companion animal health at the City University of Hong Kong, told Reuters. "The theoretical risk is there, but it just doesn't happen.”

2) Hamsters aren't to blame for the outbreak

Humans love to blame innocent animals, especially rodents, for disease outbreaks that we’re actually responsible for. This may sound glaringly obvious, but the 12 or more hamsters found to be carrying covid had done nothing wrong. While we don’t currently know for sure how this particular outbreak started, it was likely because of the cramped, unsanitary conditions that animals in the pet industry are kept in. According to the Guardian, Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading microbiologist and Hong Kong government adviser, said "we have reason to believe the source was the warehouse containing more than 1,000 hamsters in close proximity.” 

Some of the hamsters stored in this warehouse were imported from the Netherlands, where they were most likely born in rodent mills ——industrial facilities that exist to cheaply churn out hamsters, rats, mice, and other animals for the pet industry. Such places closely resemble the factory farms of animal agriculture, in that individuals are reduced to objects and their welfare is of least concern. It is not yet clear at what point the hamsters became infected. 

3) Minimise close contact with your hamster if you test positive

Because hamsters can catch Covid from humans, there is a risk that you could infect your furry friend. If you test positive for Covid, stay away from your hamster as much as possible until you are finished self-isolating. 

If there is nobody else in your household who can look after your hamster while you are contagious, wear a mask and gloves for handling their food and spot cleaning their enclosure. It is also best to not let your hamster free roam during this time so that they don’t come into contact with any surfaces or objects you might have touched or breathed on. Giving your hamsters extra toys to play with instead will help prevent boredom.

4) If your hamster is unwell, speak to a hamster-savvy vet

If you have any concerns about your hamster’s health, speak to a hamster-savvy veterinary surgeon as soon as possible. Not all companion animal veterinarians are trained to treat hamsters, so it’s a good idea to find a specialist. 

As prey animals, hamsters hide symptoms of illness until they are really unwell. For that reason, it’s important to keep a close eye on your hamster and know how to spot the signs that something might be wrong before it’s too late.

5) It's time for pet stores to stop selling hamsters

The hamster Covid outbreak and resulting cull would most likely never have happened if hamsters were not mass produced to be sold in pet shops. This ought to serve as a wake-up call to the industry that its commodification of small furries not only harms the animals but also poses a potential threat to human health. 

The outbreak also brings to light a little-known and rather bizarre aspect of the pet trade — the live import and export of hamsters and other companion animals. We don’t know much about how the hamsters in this case were transported, only that they were “housed together in a shipment from the Netherlands” to Hong Kong, but it’s safe to assume that these animals found the journey incredibly stressful. 

An obvious way to help protect both humans and hamsters from future viral outbreaks is to shut down rodent mills and end the sale of animals in pet stores. Doing so will ultimately save lives. 

Written by Hannah McKay. Hannah is a freelance writer focused on animal protection. 

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