Killing Off India’s Dogs is Not the Way to Get Rid of its Rabies Problem

A pup. Credit: Nitin G/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: Nitin G/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A few weeks ago, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a call for a public debate on street dogs in India. Presenting it as a ‘human rights versus animal rights’ issue, the NHRC’s notice questions neutering and vaccination (of dogs) as a strategy for controlling dog bites and rabies. The NHRC is not alone in raising such questions; time and again, local authorities and some sections of the public in India have debated street dogs, often calling for eradication to prevent dog bites and rabies. Such debates are typically sparked off by sporadic incidents of dog bites or mauling, as was recently seen in New Delhi.

Why does India, despite more than a hundred years of government-led dog control efforts, continue to witness to recurring debates on these decidedly serious issues? We think the public health risks of bites and rabies associated with dogs continue to be ongoing problems because of the prevalence of an incomplete and flawed understanding of street dogs, their interactions with people, and the risks that may emerge from these interactions.

Dog control in colonial and independent India

In India, the British colonial administration introduced government-led dog eradication programmes in the 1800s at about the same time that rabies became a public health concern in England’s cities. Post-independence, dogs continued to be killed by local authorities – both regularly and in response to complaints. More than a hundred years of street dog eradication, however, did not make much of a difference to dog population sizes and the incidence of human rabies. This is because when dogs are removed from a neighbourhood, dogs from other areas end up moving into the ecological niche (simply put, food and space) that becomes available.

In a large, complex place like India, such influx is inevitable – the administrative boundaries based on which dog control is carried out do not prevent the movement of dogs. The strategy of eradication in India thus was resplendent in its failure to address the public health concerns of bites and rabies. It is in recognition of the ineffectiveness of eradication, and in keeping with World Health Organisation advice, that street dog neutering and vaccination programmes were authorized by Central law in the year 2001.

The logic of neutering and vaccination

Since 2001, local authorities seeking to control street dog populations are required to implement animal birth control (neutering) and anti-rabies vaccination (ABC-ARV) programmes. These are recommended by the WHO as a key tool for the control of rabies transmission.

The purpose of neutering and vaccination is to ensure that dog populations are small, stable, healthy and safe. Vaccination reduces the incidence of rabies. Neutering – castration in male dogs and ovario-hysterectomies in female dogs – reduces fighting related to reproductive activities and makes dogs more sluggish and docile. This in turn reduces the incidence of dog bites. Moreover, the territorial nature of dogs means that the retention of a neutered and vaccinated population of dogs in a locality prevents new dogs from occupying the area. When street dogs are removed or eradicated, new dogs enter the neighbourhood which heightens the incidence of dog bites due to fear and fighting.

In India, research shows ten years of implementation of the ABC-ARV programme resulted in a 28% decrease in dog population size in Jaipur. In Jodhpur, dog populations either decreased or remained stable in areas where the programme was implemented. Similarly, in Chennai, where the ABC-ARV programme was adopted in 1996, human deaths due to rabies declined from 120 in 1996 to five in the mid-2000s. In India as a whole, while the public sphere is awash with estimates of around 20,565 to 20,800 rabies deaths per year, the number of reported rabies cases has come down from 534 in 2004 to 212 in 2012. The reasons for the stark differences between the various extrapolations and the number of confirmed cases are complex; but at the very least, what this suggests is that there has been a decrease in the reported incidence of human rabies.

The desire for dog-free streets

Nonetheless, tragic incidents related to dog bites or mauling still occur. The sporadic nature of such tragedies is evident in the media and public attention they garner. By contrast, deaths due to more common hazards, such as automobiles, do not attract so much public ire. In 2011, there were 165072 reported deaths due to traffic accidents, compared to 253 reported deaths due to rabies. In other words, whereas hazards such as automobiles that cause deaths more frequently go unremarked, the depth of anxiety about the risks associated with dogs seems to be correlated to the very sporadic character of the risks they pose.

Such anxiety leads to demands by some sections of society for a revival of the colonial practice of eradication through killing or removal. Local authorities have also occasionally flouted the law and resorted to eradication in the mistaken belief that this will produce a sanitized, dog-free locality – and thereby address the concerns of bites and rabies.

Advocates of dog-free streets argue that countries like the United Kingdom have successfully eradicated free-living dogs. However, what they do not realize is that the ecological niches freed up because of the removal of dogs are now inhabited by other animals such as foxes and seagulls (in the UK) and coyotes (in the United States) which pose similar risks. Indeed, the UK is currently debating foxes and seagulls and the threats they pose to people, including to children; these animals have occupied niches that would be inhabited by dogs if they hadn’t been eliminated.

A multi-dimensional problem needs a multi-pronged approach

Street dogs, urban foxes, urban coyotes and seagulls are all liminal animals that live in or near human settlements and that thrive on the food wastes generated by people. It is specific types of interactions between humans and these animals, mediated by certain conditions created by human lifestyles (such as food waste) that lead to risks to public health and safety.  As such, these risks cannot be addressed by killing alone.

It is here that there has been a collective failure on the part of human rights, public health, and animal control organizations in addressing the multidimensional nature of the risks associated with street dogs in India. Whether through the strategy of eradication or that of ABC-ARV, the emphasis has been on the dogs alone. This emphasis does not recognize that dogs are just one component of a multifaceted set of variables that lead to mauling, bites and rabies. Most dogs rarely bite, and dog bites rarely cause rabies or major wounds or death. Rather, it is the intersection of certain fundamentally social factors with particular dog behaviours that lead to these public health problems. Thus, a multi-pronged approach that addresses these multiple factors is required, and not one that focuses narrowly on managing dog populations. New York City is currently implementing such an approach to facilitate the safe coexistence of coyotes and people.

At the minimum, an effective public health programme to tackle dog bites and rabies will have to include four components: a) proper waste management underpinned by appropriate infrastructure; b) public education and behaviour change with regard to live safely with free-living dogs and what to do when bitten, and also in relation to waste management; c) systematic and carefully-designed neutering and vaccination programmes that take into account dog territoriality; d) adequate facilities for post-exposure prophylaxis and treatment. This is true of any public health concern. For example, one cannot tackle AIDS without education, awareness, and infrastructure (e.g., availability of condoms and HIV testing) relating to safe sex practices. Similarly, when it comes to human-dog interactions, there needs to be as much of an emphasis on educating people and children on how to interact safely with dogs, and on proper waste disposal as on the consistent implementation of neutering and vaccination programmes and provision of medical care.  

Destructive modernity

A One Health approach that couples ABC-ARV programmes with public awareness and education is recognized internationally as the best public health strategy for dealing with dog bites and rabies. Given this, to what extent do calls for dog-free streets stem from a mindless aping of the destructive ‘development’ displayed in the West, and which has only led to different kinds of risks, as is currently witnessed in the UK and US?  It is easy to dismiss dogs as pests that can be eliminated without worry. However, it is important to remember that many creatures that were persecuted in the past as pests – for example, wolves and bats – are now protected as endangered animals or reintroduced for their ecological role. Snakes once killed as pests are now being reintroduced in rural Karnataka to control rats.

Even if one believes dogs are creatures that can be killed without compunction, doing so is not an effective means of safeguarding human wellbeing. There may be many situations where human and animal rights are in conflict, but this particular situation – dog bites and rabies – is not one of them. What is required is a multi-pronged, One Health approach that addresses the public health issues of dog bites and rabies through carefully implemented neutering and vaccination programmes, public education and behaviour change, and proper waste management. Without such a multi-pronged approach, any programme to address dog bites and rabies will remain ineffective.

Krithika Srinivasan is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Exeter. Smitha Rao is an independent researcher. Rajesh Kasturirangan is adjunct faculty at the Azim Premji University.

  • Shanvi Rawat

    Through this article, I got to know that such a thing is being contemplated by the policy makers. But it really should not be the only solution to this problem and it is not that grave a problem to not be able to control through vaccine and neutering. Can such a solution be acceptable for people residing on streets?

  • Arun R

    A much needed, well written article that exposes why killing is redundant and ineffective, and calls for rational, intelligent ways to control dog population. Hope NHRC is enlightened by this. Many thanks to the authors for their efforts.

  • S Thiyagarajan

    I worked as Health Officer at Pondicherry Municipality and know first hand the problems caused by the street dogs and difficulties of controlling the population. Neutering is not such an easy thing. As per law dogs, mainly male dogs, have to be caught and transported to a neutering centre, where vetenararians perform vasectomy on them. After that the dog is to be kept at the centre for five days and properly fed. ( After coronary angioplasty you can be home in three days!! )After five days the dogs has to be released in the same area from where they were caught originally. Usually the capacity of the neutering centre is limited, and at a time only about 20 dogs can be taken. That means only about 100 dogs can be taken in a month. Municipalities have one or two centres in their area. Added to this the shortage of dog catchers, shortage and unavailability of Veterinarians, it is a very slow process with very limited success. Besides this, the local bodies are chronically short of funds, and allot limited funds for this sector. The dogs proliferate exponentially each year and you can see a huge pack of dogs moving menacingly in every street. The animal activists make big fuss about this procedure. They object to the practice of catching dogs with noose and only nets to be used for dog catching which is not very effective. Anti-rabies vaccination is a very costly proposition and vaccinating all the stray dogs is neither possibl nor feasible. (you can vaccinate a dog only after catching and holding it !!). so a combined approach of the abovesaid approaches and selective culling of dogs is the only way to tackle this problem. Recently Kerala has started culling of stray dogs and this experiment can be evaluated dispassionately without too much emphasis on animal rights etc., and if found to be effective, can be followed nationwide. Culling is good for stray dogs also becuase the remaining dogs can become very healthy and strong. It is not possible to eliminate the stray dogs totally; it is not desirable to be having a pack of menacing dogs in every street. we have to effectively control the dogs and for that selective culling is one of the methods so that the remaining healthy dogs become COMMUNITY DOGS instead of street dogs.

    • Garima Prasher

      S Thiyagarajan… this is not human being’s planet. Dogs have all the rights to live, reproduce and increase their population like human beings do. Going by your response… I feel humans should also be culled… human population is about to explode… how bout that? If you advocate killing dogs, you should have no problems in advocating killing humans. Needless to say… no animal is as dangerous as human beings…. lets kill human beings too…

  • Skydog

    One of the few pieces in the current media that lists relevant data and rational arguments, as well as the causes for the over-emotional reactions to the issue by uneducated folk. In India’s larger cities there are a plethora of shelters and vets who are registered to perform sterilizations – if the dogs can be brought to them. As is usual in India, municipalities and NGOs who are supposed to pick up the dogs and bring them for the operation fail in their duties, are unprofessionally managed or do not carry out their responsibilities in adequate measure. Why blame Man’s Best Friend, who has been living in symbiosis with humans for >20,000 years, for India’s usual problems of being totally incompetent to govern or manage itself or make any agency work for the common good?

  • Yehudi Mehta

    To start with, the assumption that the problem of dog bites is only related to rabies is a huge mistake. Rabies would be the worst possible outcome of a dog bite, but dog bite is an extremely painful and traumatic thing in itself. To the most vulnerable sections of people such as children, senior citizens and physically challenged people, dog bites and mauling can be life-threatening. Incidents of people dying of dog bites are not merely “sporadic” as the article claims, but quite frequent. To see such reports, you would have to move your eyes out of the myopic lens of the elitist, Delhi-based “national” media.

    The reasons why dog eradication schemes have been ineffective are mainly two:
    1. Such efforts are not comprehensive, but “sporadic”, limited to some regions and for limited periods of time. Without systematic and comprehensive efforts, indeed dogs from “other” areas would move in to areas where some efforts have been made.
    2. Permanent solutions have to ensure that stray dogs do not get food easily from places with high human population density. In other words, there shouldn’t be so much waste lying around. The issue here is that of waste disposal. The article itself admits that the problem of stray dogs, or “urban foxes, urban coyotes” and so on in other countries are all related to food waste generated by human beings. That is where our focus ought to be.

    The most shocking aspect of the article though is that while it strains to blame human rights, public health and animal control organisations, there is not a word said about the so-called dog lovers and animal rights organisations who refuse to even acknowledge dog bites as a problem and go about creating roadblocks even for sterilisation efforts.

    The question to ask is how to prevent dog bites, not what to do once bitten. This is also a class question, as the upper class and upper middle class sections who are the biggest “advocates” of dog rights are rarely the victims of dog bites. The neighbourhoods they move around are relatively cleaner and less affected by packs of aggressive dogs, and their use of cars and private vehicles keep them relatively insulated to the problem of having to come face to face with aggressive dogs.

    The article claims that automobile deaths do not invoke such anger. Likewise mosquito eradication programmes also do not invoke such anger from so-called “dog lovers”. Why? The reasons is this – the so-called “dog lovers” are not nature lovers. Their “love” is selectively directed towards just one species whose uncontrolled population growth is posing a huge threat to other species in nature, including human beings. Species kill other species for survival, and those who are concerned about life should be concerned about the lives of all the species, not just one. People who get all sentimental while considering measures to reduce the population of a species which is threatening human lives have no understanding of nature, or life itself.

    The article doesn’t talk about the costs and difficulties associated with neutering programmes. Firstly, as Mr. Thiyagarajan has pointed out in his comment, given the huge numbers involved, even as such measures are carried out, the numbers of stray dogs would have gone up exponentially. The situation right now in many parts of India is a public health EMERGENCY, not a mere “risk”. The numbers of street dogs need to be brought down IMMEDIATELY. Second, the costs are very high. Our governments should be using our resources for public education, public health, social security, employment generation and so on instead of investing huge sums for stray dogs. And third, the bite of a sterilised and vaccinated dog is not any less painful; children can just as well be killed by such dogs.

    Given the urgent need to bring down the population of dogs, we need a combination of three measures:
    1. Comprehensive and urgent measures to ensure waste disposal and processing. This will require massive expansion of infrastructure, a big infusion of funds and public education regarding waste disposal. This should be the priority in the long run.
    2. In the medium term, culling of dogs, especially in areas with high density of stray dogs. All contiguous territories in urban areas from which there is the possibility of dogs moving in should be covered.
    3. In areas where the density of stray dogs is very low, there should be neutering and vaccination.

    The most important thing of all is, of course, to put human lives over everything else. Anything less is simply unacceptable.

  • N Motwani

    This is exactly the problem when the solutions and problems of one context are forced over another.
    My first question to the authors: Do you really think seagulls or coyotes could be a problem in India too? Foxes, perhaps. Snakes and rats were a good example, seagulls and coyotes are not. You have to look at the context, not applicable in India.
    Second, why do you oppose dog-free streets? Do you want your children to be bitten by stray, ferocious dogs? If you are so keen to not cull these dogs, adopt them and spare us from having to navigate streets filled with packs of angry dogs.
    My proposal to govt: Do not listen to animal rights activists in this case. Kill all the stray dogs. If someone is willing, let them adopt a stray dog or two. Make them sign an undertaking that they will take proper care of the dog. Send people (animal rights activists) to their houses to check if the adopters are taking proper care of dogs. If proper care is taken, good. If proper care is not taken, prosecute them by law.

  • S Thiyagarajan

    Garima….. Agreed that this planet is meant for all the living creatures. But you must have read Darwin, Only the fittest survives. Even the mighty Dinosaurs have vanished from the face of the earth. I have only elaborated the difficulties of stray dog control from my first hand experience. As an activist, how many dogs you have fed or taken care of? Have you taken any of the stray dogs to the vets for ARV? It is easy to be an arm-chair adviser. It is much easier to criticise whatever authorities do. It is a different thing to achieve things on the field. Atleast give us a plan of action of how to do ARV for all the stray dogs? Instead of blaming the darkness, light a candle. IInstead of criticising every move, please enlighten us on how to tackle the menace of stray dogs.

  • Sonoran

    Lmao have these writers even been outside of India? So what if foxes, seagulls and coyotes have moved into the niche of the dogs.

    Go go UK or USA and see if you see even 1 bloody fox or coyote. And seagulls barely cause any problems.
    On top of that I would take a street ful of foxes instead of the ugly mutts of India.

    Additionally they say if you kill dogs in one area, new dogs will move in. That’s good, it makes killing them easier to instead of having to go look for them all.

    But why should I care I don’t live in India and only have to deal with this ugly problem when I visit once every few years.