The year is 2025. All transport between countries has been shut down. You need official permission to travel more than a few hundred meters from your home. Everyone is wearing tight, constrictive masks. Everyone is staying away from each other. Hospitals must turn away people in urgent need of care because they cannot cope. Unemployment is increasing every day with many worried about their future.
Sound familiar? Why would this be happening four years from now? We would have defeated COVID-19 by then, wouldn’t we?
We very well may have, and by then, COVID-19 may be a thing of the recent past. Maybe a vaccine has been found, and a global program implemented. Maybe we went back to 'normal' for a few years. Maybe we started rebuilding our lives after the world had lost so much.
However, what we didn’t focus on were all potential sources of future pandemics and address those sources. We still allowed a trade where millions of animals are taken from the streets and homes across Southeast Asia. Where they are moved hundreds of kilometers through countries and across borders. Where they are held in cramped cages with other animals of unknown health status for days, waiting for a painful death. And throughout, they are handled brutally, with minimal (if any) hygiene practices, and there is contact between the trade and thousands of people, both those involved in the trade and those they will be in contact with. And this is undeniably another source of risk: The brutal dog and cat meat trade.
Lessons from the wildlife trade
After the SARS 2003 outbreak, and the COVID-19 outbreak, the world has started to recognize, belatedly, that live animal markets selling wildlife are an unconscionable risk that benefitted few, but cost the lives and livelihoods of so many, just as we are seeing now. We may finally take action to end the trade in wild animals for consumption, something we should have done decades ago. However, we are still allowing the dog and cat meat trade, which operates under all the same conditions needed for virus emergence, to continue unabated.
Why did the live markets pose a such global health risk? There are likely millions of viruses in animals. The majority of these viruses usually stay within their species and won’t cause severe disease. However, when they are transmitted to another species, such as humans, they often have the chance to cause severe disease¹. This is what happened with SARS in 2003, Ebola, and a number of other diseases, and is what most likely happened with COVID-19.
How could new viruses emerge from the dog and cat meat trade?
How is a virus able to move from one species to another and establish itself?
The trauma animals experience from capture and transport, along with inadequate access to food and water, results in weakened immune systems. These animals become more susceptible to contracting and transmitting pathogens. These pathogens, including viruses, then have ample chance to mix and 'reassort' themselves. The more virus mutations, the more chance that the viruses will be able to develop the mutations needed to be able to transmit to other species. The high density and diversity of animals from different locations also provides an ideal environment for the emergence of 'new' viruses². Essentially, what we see in live animal markets – the frequent mixing of these pathogens, the stressful environment, poor sanitary conditions and frequent contact with humans –– provides the ideal environment for new pathogens to emerge and infect humans. An example of this is seen in a 360-degree video below taken at a live market in Indonesia during one of our investigations with our partner, Dog Meat Free Indonesia.
The below photo illustrates some of these conditions seen in live animal markets:
There is scientific evidence behind this claim. It has been established that the high population turnover, as seen in live animal markets, provides the optimum conditions for amplification and perpetuation of disease agents such as influenza⁴, and this argument likely applies to other disease agents. The very nature of live animal markets, including those that trade in dog and cat meat, means that there is a huge amount of human contact, both for those working in the trade and those in the vicinity, allowing ample opportunity for viruses, once mutated, to cross-over to humans and then to spread³. The unhygienic conditions, poor surveillance and minimal biosecurity of live animal markets further enhance the risk⁵.
The dog and cat meat trade has previously resulted in disease in humans, particularly rabies and cholera, and this enough is reason for it to be ended. However, it is also clear that the trade provides the ideal environment for emergence of new and devastating diseases, something we have seen with other live animal trades.
Every day that we allow this trade to continue is another day where we’re playing roulette with our lives and economies. Except this time 'winning' means economic benefits will remain for a few involved in the trade, while losing could mean the loss of hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives and a repeat of the devastation that we are now facing world-wide.
The COVID-19 crisis has placed decision-makers and everyone involved with animals at a historical crossroads. Now is the time we should all be rethinking how we can improve the way we treat animals to reduce risks to both human and animal health and to advance animal welfare.
Dr Karan KukrejaProject Manager – Ending the Dog and Cat Meat Trade in Southeast Asia
Born and bred in Thailand, Karan graduated from the University of Sydney in 2008 as a qualified vet and has worked four years in private veterinary general and specialist practice in Australia. In Asia he has worked as a vet to fight transboundary animal diseases in Southeast Asia and China. Following this Karan worked for World Animal Protection on delivery a campaign to end the bear bile industry in Asia.
Karan joined Four Paws in 2019 as the Project Manager working with a core team to develop and deliver an international campaign to end the brutal dog and cat meat trade in Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.
 Kuzmin, I. V., Bozick, B., Guagliardo, S. A., Kunkel, R., Shak, J. R., Tong, S., & Rupprecht, C. E. (2011). Bats, emerging infectious diseases, and the rabies paradigm revisited. Emerging Health Threats Journal, 4(1), 7159. doi: 10.3402/ehtj.v4i0.7159
 Fèvre, E. M., Bronsvoort, B. M. D. C., Hamilton, K. A., & Cleaveland, S. (2006). Animal movements and the spread of infectious diseases. Trends in Microbiology, 14(3), 125–131. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2006.01.004
 Webster, R. G. (2004). Wet markets—a continuing source of severe acute respiratory syndrome and influenza? The Lancet, 363(9404), 234-236. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(03)15329-9/fulltext
 Wu, T., Perrings, C., Kinzig, A., Collins, J. P., Minteer, B. A., & Daszak, P. (2017). Economic growth, urbanization, globalization, and the risks of emerging infectious diseases in China: A review. Ambio, 46, 18-29. doi: 10.1007/s13280-016-0809-2