Owned dogs – the low-hanging but ignored fruit in ABC-programs?

ABC-programs in India – short history

The history of ABC (animal birth control, i.e. surgical sterilization) programs in India goes all the way back to the late 1960’s. This is when Blue Cross of India in Chennai (then Madras) first begun this program to humanely control the roaming street dog population. After 40 years of ABC-program advocacy work by many animal welfare organizations across India, ABC-program as the best way to control free-roaming street dog populations, was made to an official government policy when ABC-rules were notified in 2001.

The rules set the framework for municipalities and local bodies to handle the matter of ownerless, roaming dogs. Further technical instructions were published in 2009 in the form of the AWBI Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for ABC programs. In March 2023, a new revision of the ABC rules was notified, focusing more on the required recognition and registration process required for any NGO that wants to do humane dog population management by sterilizing ownerless street dogs.

ABC programs are not easy, but they are effective when well run!

There is a good amount of evidence, including scientific publications, showing how continuous and intensive ABC program can reduce the stray dog population in a city or town and such examples and publications have also been included in the AWBI SOP as references.

However, it is also evident that such programs require lot of skilled manpower, and I am not only talking about the veterinary surgery skills. Catching of free-roaming dogs in a safe and humane manner, as well as skills in veterinary assistant work such as aseptic preparation of the patients for surgery and in monitoring and maintaining anesthesia, are essential for successful ABC program. People with such skills are not easily available in many areas where the need for humane dog population management is highest. This has also been noted by the UN FAO Dog Population Management meeting in Rome in 2011.

FAO Dog Population Management (2011), chapter 3.6.5, page 25
“A number of challenges were identified for the successful implementation of reproduction control around the world, particularly in the developing world.
These challenges include the lack of suitably trained staff, poor techniques that endanger animal welfare, no or poorly enforced regulation of veterinary procedures such as insufficient anaesthesia during surgery and the use of inappropriate operating techniques, insufficiently sterilized instruments and material bringing about infection, and post-surgical complications.

However, hope and opportunities were also noted:

FAO Dog Population Management (2011), chapter 3.6.5, page 26
“Despite these challenges there are significant opportunities to improve reproduction control. Both national and regional veterinary associations have the opportunity to develop standards, protocols and regulations for all aspects of reproduction
control, including anaesthesia, analgesia, procedures to ensure asepsis, clinical examination before reproduction control, and monitoring during and post-operatively, or post-treatment if using non-surgical methods. There are protocols already
available that can provide the foundation for national standards and protocols, such
as the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW’s) Companion animal field
manual; primary veterinary health care standards. There are also opportunities to
develop training programmes for veterinarians, veterinary students and veterinary
nursing staff in collaboration with NGOs that focus on improving veterinary capacity such as Worldwide Veterinary Service, Vets Without Borders..”

The problem of dog catching

I have been involved in the ABC-program field in India for nearly 20 years now and have heard countless times how this or that place/organization/charity clinic is not able to do ABC work because of lack of skilled dog catchers. This indeed is challenging because catching roaming dogs with catching nets requires physical fitness, bravery, team play as well as compassion and care for the animals. Not all of this can be simply taught during any kind of a training program for just anyone. You do need to have aptitude for this kind of work. Free-roaming dogs are most actively out and about in early mornings and to find them you have to be willing to get up early and run in all sorts of terrains, through garbage and dirt. It is not easy to find people willing & suitable for this job.

In my work with first IPAN and then with WVS, I have been lucky enough to have one of the best dog catching teams in India, working with me. Going on a field vaccination drive with such a skilled team is really an amazing experience with the thrill of getting hundreds of dogs vaccinated against rabies in a short period of time. They are great bunch of guys who take lot of pride in their work and its direct connection in saving human and animal lives by keeping Nilgiris free of rabies. I am very much aware that such teams do not grow in trees and they are not easy to establish all over the country.

Owned dog spay/neuter clinics – the low hanging fruit

It seems to me that the role of the owned dogs in producing unwanted puppies has been mostly forgotten and ignored. This might be because of the decades long history of surgical sterilization being very strongly associated with the ownerless street-dog focused ABC programs. At best, such programs function in the major metro cities and biggest towns.

The reality in small towns and villages is, that there is no spay/neuter surgery services available. There are no municipality-run ABC centers in small towns and in villages and such areas often also do not have much private veterinary service availability either. Same time, it is very common in India for owned dogs to be roaming free. As they roam free, they often get unwantedly pregnant, and owners are then faced with the situation of what to do with the puppies that they are not able to find homes for. The common scenario is that these puppies are left on the streets and those who survive, will go on to contribute to the ownerless roaming dog population. This would all be easily prevented if spay/neuter surgery services were made more easily accessible and affordable for all dog owners.

WVS India has recently launched a new program with the support from Brigitte Bardot Foundation, called Jamtse – Access to vet care. The idea is to focus on owned dogs and demonstrate to other veterinarians and NGOs how the common obstacle of not having good dog catchers, can be overcome by doing area-focused, temporary owned dog field clinics. During the first three days of the first Access to vet care -Jamtse clinic in Bylakuppe Tibetan settlement in Karnataka, totally 44 dogs were brought by their owners for spay/neuter surgery. No dog catching was needed at all!

With veterinary surgery skills increasing and improving across the country, more and more owners are likely to be interested in having their dogs operated because of the multiple health benefits of doing so. We are definitely moving away from the times when spay/neuter was only something for ownerless stray dogs, towards responsible pet dog ownership. This is real progress for animal welfare.

I am not denying the issue with the huge ownerless, roaming dog population in India and the need to improve and increase ABC-programs that effectively do humane dog population management and rabies control of stray dogs. However, I want to point out that the low-hanging fruit in this very multi-faceted & complex matter, is to ensure that all owned dogs would have access to essential veterinary care. This in my opinion includes at least access to the spay/neuter surgery and annual vaccination against rabies. With these in place, the work towards canine rabies eradication in India would take a massive leap forward.

The Ultimate Way Forward?

Sustainable solution for controlling the roaming dog population (both owned and ownerless) and rabies in India is very much needed and for that we need more veterinary surgery skills development and capacity building programs, including also training in veterinary assistant skills.

However, the ultimate way forward would be to ensure that the veterinary universities would include adequate amount of surgical hands-on training in their curriculum so that every graduate BVSc veterinarian would have the required skills to provide spay/neuter surgery services for at least all owned dogs in the area of the clinic they are working in. Pet registration combined with access to affordable veterinary spay/neuter services and mandatory sterilization of any pet dog that is allowed to roam free even part of the day, would go a long way in preventing unwanted puppies getting abandoned on the streets.

Spay/neuter services and annual rabies vaccination have to be made available, accessible and affordable for all dog owners, regardless of their socio-economic status and regardless of where they live.

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