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  3. What are animal welfare and public health concerns associated with ‘wet markets’?

What are animal welfare and public health concerns associated with ‘wet markets’?

‘Wet markets’ have individual stalls selling fresh food, similar to a farmers’ market. This may be under cover or in the open. In some places, these markets also sell live animals, sometimes including wildlife and exotic animals [1]. The latter are most common in regions such as Asia and Africa.

The trade of live animals in these markets, particularly wildlife, is an animal welfare and health concern due to the stress caused to the animals, poor standards of handling and husbandry, often unhygienic conditions, which is associated with animals developing diseases. Public health concerns result from animals and unhygienic conditions potentially becoming a source of infectious disease for people [23]. In addition, stressed animals may potentially injure people.

Live wildlife being sold in a wet market in China.

Markets are a stressful place for live animals, particularly for non-domesticated animals, wildlife and exotic animals [34]. Trade in wildlife is not only a threat to animal health and welfare and a public health risk, but also leads to loss of biodiversity [23].

The animals are removed from their natural environment, farmed or collected from the wild, transported to and held at markets by being caged or restrained. Large numbers of animals of different species may be held in unhygienic and crowded conditions, close to other animals and people, and with poor or non-existent health and animal welfare standards [1, 34]. This inevitably leads to significant stress and poor outcomes for the animals [1, 4].

Stressed animals are a concern for public health, as well as being an animal welfare concern. Stress can suppress the immune system, so stressed animals are more likely to acquire diseases. Where hygiene standards are poor, this increases the likelihood that an animal will become diseased [1].

Live animals in wet markets are not only likely to be stressed, suffering from compromised immunity and potentially carrying disease, they are also close to many people. This provides ideal conditions for pathogens to replicate, spread, and potentially infect people [1, 4].

There are many recent examples of emerging human infections that have originated from wildlife and from markets trading wildlife; this is considered an ongoing risk to human health [36]. Examples include Swine and Avian influenza, Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) [1, 34, 610]. These markets are considered to be a significant ongoing risk to human health [3, 56]. The Australian Government has urged China to investigate the biosecurity and public health risks associated with wildlife wet markets [4].

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted from the introduction into the human population of a novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 [2]. It is not yet known exactly how this occurred or what species the virus originated from but the evidence suggests it jumped from wildlife to humans [9, 1112]. It is widely thought that it originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China [5, 8, 1213] – the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic – although this is not yet proven.

The RSPCA, along with many other animal welfare and conservation organisations around the world, is calling for an end to the transport, trade and consumption of wildlife via wet markets. Ending the collection and capture of wild animals, farming of wild animal species, the import, export and transport of live wildlife and wildlife meat intended for sale in wildlife markets, and trade through physical or online markets for any purpose are vital steps to address the potential risks to human health, as well as animal welfare and conservation concerns. It is also important to support and encourage initiatives that deliver alternative sources of protein to subsistence consumers of wild animals, in order to remove reliance on these sources of protein and further reduce the risk to human health, and animal health and welfare.

These steps are part of taking a One Health, One Welfare approach that considers human and animal health and welfare as a single issue in order to achieve better outcomes for both humans and animals.


[1] Woo PCY, Lau SKP, Yuen K-Y (2006) Infectious diseases emerging from Chinese wet-markets: zoonotic origins of severe respiratory viral infections. Current Opinion in Infectious Disease, 19(5): 401–4078

[2] World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) (2020) Statement of the OIE Wildlife Working Group, April 2020 – Wildlife Trade and Emerging Zoonotic Diseases.

[3] Humane Society International (2020) Wildlife Markets and COVID-19

[4] Littleproud D (2020) Australia calls for action on Wildlife Wet Markets – 23 April 2020

[5] Wu F et al (2020) A new coronavirus associated with human respiratory disease in China. Nature, 579: 265–269.

[6] Liu Q, Cao L, Zhu X-Q (2014) Major emerging and re-emerging zoonoses in China: a matter of global health and socioeconomic development for 1.3 billion. International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 25: 65-72.

[7] Bell D, Roberton S, Hunter PR (2004) Animal origins of SARS coronavirus: possible links with the international trade in small carnivores

[8] Zhou P et al (2020) A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature, 579: 270–273.

[9] Andersen KG et al (2020) The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2 Nature Medicine 26: 450-452.

[10] Chomel BB, Belotto A, Meslin F-X (2007) Wildlife, Exotic Pets, and Emerging Zoonoses. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 13(1).

[11] World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) (2020) Questions and Answers on the 2019 Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19).

[12] Shereen MA et al (2020) COVID-19 infection: origin, transmission, and characteristics of human coronaviruses. Journal of Advanced Research, 24: 91-98

[13] Wang, H et al (2020) The Genetic Sequence, Origin, and Diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2. European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases: 1–7.

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Updated on May 13, 2020
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