Sneezing pets are latest victims of Beijing's Sars panic

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"Grab that cat!'' yelled the shop assistant at Jenny Lou's store; within minutes two masked men armed with poles and nooses were chasing the wretched feline through the door and into the street.

"Grab that cat!'' yelled the shop assistant at Jenny Lou's store. Within minutes two masked men armed with poles and nooses were chasing the wretched feline through the door and into the street.

Fear that cats, dogs and other pets are hosts for the Sars virus is sparking one of China's regular campaigns against household pets. Pest extermination patrols are out in force and their work is aided by informers among the residents who become upset even by the sight of dogs on the streets. "I told my employer I'm not going to walk her dog any more," said Xiao Cui, a maid for a foreign family in the Beijing suburbs. " She might fire me but I'm terrified I can get the disease and be sent to the hospital."

The Beijing Star Daily, a popular tabloid, carried the story of a pet owner in Fengtai district who threw his dog out of a sixth-storey window, fearing it had caught Sars. In another case, a dog was beaten to death after it sneezed repeatedly while waiting for its owner at a market. Many residential compounds have banned pet owners from walking their dogs in public gardens. As news spread that pets of Sars victims would be put down, some owners have abandoned their dogs.

Soon after taking control of the city in 1949, the Communists rounded up and exterminated dogs, declaring that canines were unproductive beasts that ate an undeserved share of the food peasants grew. Then in 1983, there was another city-wide hunt for dogs, and those who refused to cooperate found their pets mysteriously disappeared.

In the mid-1990s the state issued regulations authorising citizens to keep certain kinds of dogs, provided they were not more than 35cm (14in) high.

But the Sars outbreak has had one positive outcome. The ''people's war'' against Sars is helping those campaigning to protect China's endangered animals from being eaten in upmarket restaurants. The authorities have cracked down on the smuggling and eating of them. About 170,000 forestry officers raided 14,900 animal fairs and 67,800 hotels and restaurants. They found 838,500 endangered animals, including snakes, pangolins, anteaters, cranes and turtles. More than 1,400 people were arrested.

Beijing has closed the few restaurants it has that specialised in frogs, snakes, dogs, rare birds and mammals but it will be harder to eradicate the practice in Guangdong, where the Sars virus originated.

Some suspect the Cantonese passion for eating exotic animals – the rarer the more valued – is connected to the emergence of the virus, perhaps a mutation from contact between wild and domestic animals in the markets.

A State Forest Administration survey of 21 Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, found that 46 per cent of those surveyed had tried wild game. Forty-five per cent believed eating wild animals could boost energy and replenish their body's deficiencies.

That province reported just 17 new cases on Thursday but Beijing had 94 new cases and two deaths. The capital reported an extra 48 cases and two deaths yesterday, its lowest daily increase since before 20 April, when the number of cases rose to 339 from 37 and the Mayor and Health Minister were sacked for covering up the outbreak.

In all of mainland China, there were 118 new cases and six deaths yesterday.