updated 5/7/2003 8:27:11 AM ET 2003-05-07T12:27:11

Fear the flu-like SARS virus can be spread by dogs and cats is driving hundreds of people in China’s capital to kill or abandon their pets, animal rights organizations and veterinarians said on Wednesday.

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Household pets came under scrutiny after the World Health Organization blamed severe acute respiratory syndrome on a new form of the coronavirus, which causes the common cold and probably jumped to man from animals.

But animal rights groups and scientists say there is no evidence pets can carry the virus, which has killed 219 people in China, infected 4,560 and spread panic in the world’s most populous nation.

“Some communities are demanding residents dispose of all their pets, even kill them all,” Zhang Li, country director of International Fund for Animal Welfare, told Reuters Television.

“There is no government order that requires people to do that. These community areas have put up such rules without authorization.”

Chinese adopt extreme attitudes to man’s furry friends, who number about one million in the capital, Beijing. Some pampered pets enjoy life as status symbols along with gold watches and sports cars in a society marching toward greater wealth.

But some apartment buildings in Beijing have posted notices asking owners to take stairs instead of elevators when going out with their pooches, to walk them only in the late evening or early morning and to put “doggie masks” on their pets.

A hotline run by Beijing Oriental Precious Animal Hospital has been ringing constantly with frightened owners asking about SARS, one veterinarian told Reuters.

Some have asked pet clinics to put their animals down if they get common respiratory illnesses instead of treating them, he said. One hospital has put down about eight dogs from two months to six years old in the last month.

Chinese media reported some owners or their neighbors had beaten dogs and cats to death.

CONFUSION OVER SARS’ ORIGINS

Much of the confusion stems from whether or not animals, particularly fowl, can be incubators of SARS.

In late April in the southern province of Guangdong, where SARS first appeared, officials confiscated endangered species meat served as a delicacy and arrested 1,428 people.

Guangdong folk are famous for their omnivorous appetites and some experts believe SARS came from wild game eaten there.

But not all pet owners are succumbing to panic.

Zhu Jun, a glamorous television presenter in her late 30s, said her scientist father had demanded she kill her three cats for fear they could harbor the deadly virus.

Zhu, who has a degree in biology from the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, acknowledges coronaviruses can live in cats and dogs.

“But the link between SARS virus and the animals is not clear,” she said. “They’ve got to give me convincing evidence that my cats are prone to the disease. Otherwise, I’ll never kill them just out of fear.”

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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