Over the last several days, I’ve heard concerning comments about how to handle people’s companion animals during the Covid-19 crisis, especially now that a state of emergency has been declared in British Columbia, Vancouver and other cities.
Conflicting messages have been given and received. Some people were told that they are not allowed walking their dogs if they are in quarantine/self-isolation; others have been told they should be out walking their dogs. Others have been denied food delivery services for both themselves and their pets because of an “aggressive dog” sign posted on their property.
What does this unprecedented, world-wide, health crisis time mean for your dog, cat, horse and other companion animals in British Columbia?
Under the BC Emergency Program Act, both local (ie: City of Vancouver and other cities) and the provincial governments have sweeping powers. Those that are relevant to pets include the powers to limit travel, and to remove animals from property while making arrangements for their adequate care and protection (section 10 of the Act). Technically, this means that the government is allowed to limit travelling with pets – which by extension may include walking dogs. It may also mean that government is allowed to seize animals if they think they need to, as long as the animals are cared for and protected. Underlying these provisions is also legislative indication that animals must be cared for and protected.
Under the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, it is illegal to cause an animal to be in “distress”. Distress includes allowing an animal to be deprived of adequate food, water, shelter, exercise, veterinary treatment, and neglecting an animal. It is true that the powers under the Emergency Program Act override the powers under other laws, but it would be a far stretch to say that these sweeping powers include the ability to prohibit – at the very least – the basic needs for animal health and welfare.
This means that pet guardians must be allowed to walk their dogs, feed their pets and they must not neglect them. Preventing dog owners, and other pet guardians generally, to act in ways that may cause their animal to be in distress, is illegal.
Logistically, this will mean something different to pet owners, depending on their situation.
Self-Isolation, No Symptoms
If you are self-isolating at home – whether it be in a detached home or condominium, and have no symptoms of Covid-19, continue to walk your dog while still abiding by social distancing protocols. Try to have your pet food delivered at home, if possible. Keep your pets entertained at home so they do not get depressed.
If you are self-isolating at home because you have symptoms and you have been ordered to stay home (even though it is still on a self-monitoring basis), your animals’ basic needs such as food, relieving themselves and basic care, still need to be met.
If you live in a detached home (or townhouse with a yard), you should avoid walking your dog off your property; instead let your dog out in the yard for some exercise and relief. If your yard is just too small, ask a neighbor or friend to walk your dog. Make sure to disinfect the leash (or ideally have a new leash on hand), and ask your friend to wear gloves. Also tell the person to not pet your dog (as tempting as it may be!) to avoid cross contamination.
If you really have no choice – regardless of reason – but to walk your dog off property - in my view - people are allowed to do so – as long as they strictly abide by social distancing protocols. Dogs cannot be allowed to be in a state of distress, which can happen if they are not allowed to relieve themselves and to get some basic exercise.
If you live in a condominium and are ordered to self-isolate (now or in the future), you need to exhaust your options before going outside with your dog. Try training your dog with pee pads, and exercise your dog indoors – as limited as it may be. Or, ask someone else to take your dog out. If you have no other option, but to take your dog out, then – in my view – you are allowed to do so, again as long as you strictly abide by social distancing protocols.
When it comes to providing food for companion animals, it is a pet owner’s legal obligation to do so in order to not cause them to go in distress. The government should not – and can not - prevent people from buying food for their animals. You should first try purchasing food online and have it delivered – although there are increasing websites crashing, preventing people from doing this. Or ask someone else to bring you the pet food. If all else fails, pet owners must be able to go out and purchase pet food themselves, again while strictly complying with social distancing.
The bottom line is that no person or government can allow an animal to go into distress. This means, dogs must be allowed to relieve themselves, eat and to not be neglected. Animals are technically still considered “property”, but there is no question that they are a special kind of “property” that warrants special considerations.
Of course, the best court of action would be for the government – both local and provincial – to clearly include pets (and farmed animals) in all emergency planning, response and emergency support services. Until then, it will be up to pet owners and guardians to interpret legislation in a way that does not cause animals to be in distress.
This is an opinion, and not legal advice.
Contact an animal law lawyer for legal advice. Rebeka Breder is a Vancouver lawyer, who practises only animal law at Breder Law – the first law firm to exclusively provide animal law services in Western Canada. She is a founder of the University of British Columbia Animal Law course and has been its adjunct professor, she is the founder of the Canadian Bar Association Animal Law section, and she has been on the Board of Directors of the Vancouver Humane Society for over ten years. She was recognized as one of Canadian Lawyer’s Top 25 Most Influential lawyers in 2019, winning the Changemakers category.