Dogs, cats and other mammals belonging to confirmed Covid-19 patients must now undergo their own mandatory 14-day quarantine under the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department after a dog belonging to a patient registered a "weak positive" for the virus that causes Covid-19.
Previously, family members were allowed to care for the pets of the infected if they did not live with the patients and were not subject to quarantine themselves.
"However, from now on as a precaution, we will ask the owners to surrender their cat or dog to the AFCD for quarantine," said Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Centre for Health Protection.
Earlier in the day, Hong Kong veterinarians called for calm after the "weak positive" was announced.
The department said in a statement in the small hours of Friday that the dog, despite the initial test result, had not shown any symptoms nor was there was any evidence to suggest pets could either contract the coronavirus or be a source of infection.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department is now conducting more tests to confirm if the dog was really infected with the coronavirus, or if the result could be attributed to environmental contamination of the dog's mouth and nose.
Dr Michael Bradley from Stanley Veterinary Centre said he thought it very unlikely that pets such as dogs and cats could be infected with the coronavirus, as very few viruses can jump between species.
"There is no need to panic. There is no evidence yet that the virus can infect dogs, cats or other domestic animals," he said. "It's possible that the dog had the virus due to environmental contamination. A dog can be an object that carries the virus same as anything else, like a tissue."
He suggested that owners observe basic hygiene after touching pets, especially hand washing, and avoid busy areas when walking their dogs.
The dog that tested weak positive is believed to belong to a Jockey Club member infected with Covid-19 whose domestic helper is also infected. The pair are among the 94 confirmed cases in Hong Kong.
"The dog tested weak positive from the nasal and mouth swab, not from a blood test. It's quite possible that it is from the dog contacting the owner or being in the same environment with the owner," Dr David Gething of Creature Comforts said.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory medicine expert from Chinese University, also said that despite the pet's weak positive result, it did not mean it had been infected.
It was possible that droplets from the infected pet owner had contaminated the environment or the dog, Hui said on a Friday morning radio programme.
He added that no evidence thus far shows that dogs can be infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) or Covid 19.
A spokesman from the Happy Valley Veterinary Clinic & Hospital said the patient visited the clinic on her own without her dog on February 22 to pick up medication. She was wearing a mask and stayed for about three minutes.
The clinic was notified about her test result on February 26, a day after she was diagnosed. They immediately sanitised the interior and sent home three receptionists who had come into contact with her for quarantine.
The three receptionists did not qualify for the government's isolation scheme as their contact with the patient was brief.
It would be unlikely other visitors and pets would be affected due to the patient's short stay and the absence of her dog, the spokesman said.
On February 14, a joint statement by The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Hong Kong) and The Hong Kong Veterinary Association (HKVA) said they had yet to find evidence that dogs and cats could be infected by the coronavirus.
Dr Florence Chan, secretary of the HKVA's executive committee, said although what happened to the dog might appear to be a new development, it would be wrong to jump to conclusions.
"According to what we have on hand, the dog actually did not display any symptoms," she said.
She advised pet owners to wash their hands after coming into contact with their pets and avoid taking their animals to dirty places.
They should also wash their pets' paws with soap after taking them out, she added. For those who found it insufficient, she recommended helping their pets put on shoes so they could be removed and sanitised separately.
At a press conference on Friday, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee confirmed the dog in question will undergo a 14-day quarantine at a Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department's (AFCD) animal-keeping facility near the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.
Professional veterinarians will actively monitor and take test samples from the dog, and release it only when the results come back negative for the coronavirus.
"The AFCD does not at this point in time have sufficient evidence showing pets will contract or spread Covid-19," the health minister said. But she warned pet owners to observe good personal hygiene practices and maintain appropriate social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
In a statement, the AFCD said that infected patients were strongly advised to put their mammalian pets under quarantine to ensure public and animal health.
According to the Department of Health's quarantine requirements, if pet owners are confirmed with Covid-19 infections, their pets are to be delivered to AFCD's animal-keeping facility under the supervision of the Veterinary Office for two weeks for quarantine, veterinary monitoring and virus test.
Although there were some suggesting pets be brought to private clinics, I think it's better to contact the government … private clinics probably aren't equipped to diagnose the virusDr David Gething, veterinarian
"Although there were some suggesting pets be brought to private clinics, I think it's better to contact the government, because they are handling quarantine, and private clinics probably aren't equipped to diagnose the virus," Gething said.
The World Health Organisation said there is no evidence that companion animals or pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with the novel coronavirus.
"However, it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets. This protects you against various common bacteria such as E coli and Salmonella that can pass between pets and humans," the organisation said on its website.
Additional reporting by Victor Ting
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