The Animal Doctor by Dr. Michael W. Fox

The Global Threat of Disease

DEAR READERS: The highly publicized coronavirus disease -- which most likely came from an animal market in China -- and the rapid spread of the economically devastating African swine fever have public and veterinary health authorities on alert around the world. One-quarter of the world’s pigs are expected to die from the latter pandemic.

Warmer and wetter conditions in many regions are creating ideal conditions for insect-borne diseases, compounded by human encroachment into wildlands. The number of live pigs, goats, cows and sheep transported worldwide in 2017 was 30% higher than in 2007, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization; and veterinarians and epidemiologists say the trend presents a growing threat of infectious disease transmission. Live animals are a leading source of infectious disease transmission to humans and other animals, wild and domesticated.

With more disposable income, people travel more, and eat more meat and other foods of animal origin. Common sense would indicate we should do less of both -- not only for our own health, but for the sake of the poor animals subjected to long-distance live transportation prior to slaughter. Those who still choose to eat animal products should strive to buy local, organic and humanely raised.


A new coronavirus first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan has infected hundreds of people over the past month, and authorities say the virus emerged from illegally traded animals at a seafood market.

China’s booming market for wildlife is poorly regulated, and some 50 different types of wild animal were on sale at the market -- including snakes, porcupines, foxes, ducks, rabbits and endangered pangolins. (Reuters, Jan. 23; Business Insider, Jan. 23)

Already reported in the United States, Australia and Europe, this is the latest infection to jump from animals to humans. There will be more to come if we continue to exploit and consume other species.


According to the Daily Mail Online, to reduce the spread of coronavirus, officials in some Chinese cities have ordered citizens to get rid of their pets or risk having them taken away. Notices given to the Mail Online show orders from officials to dispose of dogs and cats immediately, to stop them from carrying the virus. Another report indicated some pets have been abandoned on the street amid rumors that they can spread the virus, and officials in Suichang, Zhejiang province, reportedly told residents that dogs caught out in public will be exterminated.

I have also received some reports, yet to be verified, that this virus may have been genetically engineered, and that the live-animal markets -- said to be the probable source of the virus -- are merely a scapegoat. Either way, all of this is a great tragedy, along with swine fever, and will hopefully not become a life- and economy-devastating global pandemic.

DEAR DR. FOX: My grandson is a born naturalist and wants a reticulated python for his 13th birthday.

I know he would be a responsible keeper, but I have mixed feelings about giving him the money to get one. What is your advice? Are there veterinarians who specialize in these kinds of pets? -- A.W., Sarasota, Florida

DEAR A.W.: I strongly urge you to sit down with your grandson and help him to realize that these kinds of animals belong only in the wild. In Florida and other states, their accidental escape -- or deliberate release -- into habitats not native to them is creating considerable havoc for indigenous species.

Aside from needing expert care, many so-called “exotic” animals do not thrive in captivity. Many are imported, and uncounted numbers die in the process. Even though there are veterinary specialists in some communities, the exotic animal industry should be outlawed. At that point, veterinarians would only have to treat those animals “grandfathered” in by legislation prohibiting new sales and ownership after a given date. This is for both the animals’ sakes and for public health.

But bans on keeping exotic pets like pythons, alligators, fish and monkeys have been ineffective, and some experts say it’s time for a new approach to exotic animal ownership, including education for would-be owners and more options for safely surrendering animals. Most exotic species released into the wild are not equipped for the environments into which they are released, and so they suffer and die, says marine biologist Andrew Rhyne. (Scientific American, Oct. 7)

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

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