HSVMA Statement on Fur-Farmed Animals
and the Risk of Disease

(Posted October 2020) As veterinary professionals with expertise in the field of animal health and welfare, we acknowledge severe animal welfare deficiencies inherent in the fur trade, including the ways in which the animals are cruelly trapped, housed and killed.  We also have serious concerns about disease transmission through susceptible fur-farmed animal populations, such as mink, fox and raccoon dogs, as well as the possibility of contagious disease spread between animal species and humans.

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19 disease in people. The SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks that have been reported on fur farms during this current global pandemic in the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain and, more recently, on farms in the United States show that this industry is not only cruel and unnecessary but also represents a serious public health risk. Of particular concern is that genetic analysis has suggested that workers at mink farms in Denmark and the Netherlands had introduced SARS-CoV-2 to mink and in The Netherlands there is evidence that the animals then spread the virus back to workers.

We already know that welfare standards on fur farms are poor and now we have the very real possibility that farmed mink could be a persistent source for the virus and continued infection in people, posing a significant public health threat”, said Dr. Gail Hansen a public health veterinarian.

Background:

More than 100 million wild animals worldwide, including mink, foxes, and raccoon dogs, are killed for their fur every year.  The majority (around 85%) are raised intensively on battery-cage fur factory farms.  

The living conditions in high-density fur operations fail to satisfy many of the most basic needs essential for the animals’ mental well-being; thus, farmed fur-bearing animals are more likely to exhibit stereotypical behaviors and cannibalism.  Not only are these captive wild animals highly stressed and thus immune-compromised, but they are crowded into close contact with each other’s respiratory secretions and excrement. 

Fur farms also often lack naturally mitigating factors—such as abundant sunlight, genetic variability, and healthy distance between animals. For these reasons, fur farms provide potential channels for diseases to propagate from one fur-bearing species to another, and conditions in which viruses may genetically recombine into forms potentially virulent to humans.

COVID-19 Pandemic and Fur Farms:

The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a new virus called SARS-CoV-2. Mink, foxes and raccoon dogs are susceptible to infection with SARS-CoV-1 viruses, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus has had a particularly devastating impact on mink, who experience respiratory problems similar to people and die at alarmingly high rates. During this global pandemic, the virus has spread through fur farms in the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain and has resulted in government-ordered killing of more than 3.5 million animals to try to stem the outbreak. Meanwhile, in the United States, outbreaks on farms in Utah, Wisconsin, and Michigan have resulted in the deaths of thousands of mink. Government reaction has ranged from the Dutch government’s decision to move up a ban on fur farming by three years with a shutdown now scheduled for March 2021 to relative inaction by the U.S. government.

Industry figures say there are 245 fur farms in 22 U.S. states. Given the high rate of infections on mink fur farms around the world, it would not be a stretch to say that any and all of these could face a potential outbreak and potentially pose a public health hazard.

KEY POINTS:

Risk of Transmission between humans and mink: As with many facets of this deadly disease, there is still much that is not known about the spread of SARS-CoV-2 on fur farms. However, genetic analysis from the fur farms in the Netherlands and Denmark has shown that sick workers had introduced SARS CoV-2 to mink and, at least in the Netherlands, that mink had passed it back to workers. Additionally, given the high density of the animals and the stressful conditions they are enduring on the farms, it appears that the virus is mutating rapidly among the mink. Based on these factors, the mink farms present a public health hazard.

Mink Suffering Significantly from the Disease:  SARS-CoV-2 has a unique feature that makes it particularly likely to cause illness and has a special attraction for cells in the respiratory systems of mink as with people. As a result, mink, who are already stressed from the unnatural living conditions, experience severe respiratory distress before dying. This is particularly problematic on the US farms where the animals are not being culled and are therefore dying from the disease.

Mink farms could create a reservoir for the disease:  Given the way fur farms are set up in outdoor-caged facilities, there is the possibility that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can not only circulate on the farms but that the farms could also spread to the virus to mink and other species in the local environment. This creates the potential for a reservoir for the disease, creating a long-term risk of the virus recirculating not only in mink, but in people as well.

The World Organization for Animal Health has a technical factsheet on SARS-CoV-2 in animals with more information on this issue which can be found here.