Despite TN plan to control rabies, stray dogs pose threat to rural livestock
On December 14, Koothanallur town in Tiruvarur district in Tamil Nadu saw a frightening sight: more than 35 goats were bitten by a pack of rabies-affected dogs. As many as 23 goats died. This incident reminded the officials of the need for controlling the stray dog population.
Stray dogs or free ranging domestic dogs (FRD) when infected with rabies virus become a threat not only to humans but also livestock and endangered wildlife.
Koothanallur wasn’t the first place where such an incident took place in the state. In April 2019, a stray dog bit 62 persons in Salem. In October, an eight-year-old boy was killed in Tirunelveli district. In 2018, on the IIT Madras campus, 14 deer died due to canine attacks. In February 2017, about 26 persons were bitten by a stray dog in Chengalpattu district. In 2016, a man based in Vellore district, who reared Rottweiler breed, was killed by the same dog.
What researchers say
They say FRD comprise more than 70 per cent of global dog population. A study led by University of Glasgow in 2015 found that every year 60,000 deaths occur worldwide due to rabies. According to World Health Organization, more than 95 per cent of these deaths were reported in Asia and Africa. In India, about 20,000 persons die due to dig bites every year.
Though culling always remains an alternative, it doesn’t find favour with animal lovers. So, India has opted for non-lethal methods such as birth control to check the population of the strays.
The animal birth control (ABC) programme is carried out under the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) through animal welfare NGOs recognized by AWBI. It follows a ‘Catch-neuter-vaccinate-release’ method. It is claimed that every year nearly 1 lakh stray dogs undergo ABC program. But researchers question the effectiveness of the programme which was introduced in 1994.
“If a city has 6 lakh stray dogs, then the AWBI must sterilize and vaccinate more than 5.50 lakh dogs in a year. That is 90 per cent of the population and this must be carried out for a long time. It is a waste of money. It would not help in controlling the stray dog population. The ABC benefits only in islands, but not in cities,” says Abi T Vanak, fellow, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).
In a research paper published recently in Nature, Vanak has argues that “government authorities and non-government bodies report the number of surgeries performed as a measure of success without any mention of the baseline population size, nor do they track population size subsequent to the ABC campaign”.
‘Cases wrongly reported’
According to Ilona Otter, clinical director, Worldwide Veterinary Service (WVS) International Training Centre, The Nilgiris, in India the cases of rabies are underreported and also wrongly reported.
“How did the people arrive at a decision that those dogs are affected by rabies? Did the dogs were showing symptoms of rabies? If they are rabies-affected, then the goats wouldn’t have died immediately. It takes at least a couple of weeks for the goats to show symptoms of dog-mediated rabies. If the goats have died immediately, then it must be a case of excessive bleeding, even though the dogs are rabies positive. What happened to the dogs after the incident? Were they killed or still roaming? That should also be investigated,” she added.
TN’s effort to control rabies
To control the dog population, the state has ‘one health’ approach. Touted as ‘first comprehensive rabies control effort in India’, it has stakeholders from various departments such as Directorate of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Directorate of Medical Education, Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation, Municipal Administration department, Department of Animal Husbandry and NGOs.
It concentrates on both animal (adopting CNVR method) and human interventions (treatment to post-dog bites). Till 2004, the elimination of street dog programme focused only on urban areas. This approach was implemented in rural areas too. According to a 2011 paper by SS Abbas, this coordinated effort among departments has various policy initiatives such as district-level monitoring committees and procurement of the vaccine.
From 2007, under this approach, ABC and anti-rabies (AR) vaccination drive was carried out. In cities, it was the responsibility of the corporations and municipalities to catch the dogs, sterilize, vaccinate and release them in the same area. In rural areas, the animal husbandry department does not provide vaccination to stray dogs except when requested by panchayats and, that too, for a fee. This was a major drawback of this initiative.
In cities, pet dogs are kept in shelters and tied. In rural areas, though the dogs are owned by a family, they are not kept in closures and roam free.
“These free-roaming owned dogs are not vaccinated most of the times because either the owners lack awareness or a veterinary hospital is far from their place or there would be no vaccines in stock or they can’t afford the money needed for transporting the dog,” said Otter, who claims that the Nilgiris district hasn’t reported a rabies case for a decade now.
In order to implement the AR programme successfully in rural areas, it must be combined with other existing programmes such as Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) vaccination drive, she said.
“The FMD occurs in the cattle. In Nilgiris, when the veterinarians go for vaccinating the cattle in villages, our veterinarians also join them and we vaccinate the dogs. Unless the AR vaccination is done on a door-to-door basis as in polio vaccination drive, it is difficult to bring down the rabies cases,” said Otter.
Agreeing with Otter, a government veterinarian in one of the ‘Delta’ districts alleged that the lack of professionals and financial resources make the ABC-AR program a tedious one in rural areas.
“While I can vaccinate 500 dogs in a day, I can sterilize only 15 dogs in a day. In rural areas, only one veterinarian performs this task and that too once in a week. The municipalities and panchayats can catch the dogs, but the civil society organizations must support the effort by taking care of the costs,” he said.
Rising dog population
Chennai-based animal rights activist Muralidharan alleged that people’s compassion towards stray dogs like feeding them leads to the increase of their population. He also refuted the claim that street dogs are “urban scavengers”.
“People must help the local administration in keeping the environment clean. Besides, most of the city corporations just relocate the dogs without sterilisation and vaccnination. Unless there is a responsible dog ownership, as in western countries, the strays’ population cannot be controlled,” he said.
Countering the perception that the programmes such ABC would reduce the native breeds like Chippipparai and Rajapalayam, Vanak has said that the dogs found in streets are not native.
“The street dogs are mixed mongrels. Their number needs to be reduced. But in rural areas, the native breeds are owned. The owners must take care of the dogs as they take care of their cattle,” Vanak said.