All things stray dogs have been again getting lot of media attention. News clips are getting space and going viral across Whatsapp groups and other social media.
Humane dog population management is a complex matter to which media commonly takes a very one-sided approach. A common story line gives the reader the impression that all free-roaming dogs are stray dogs and associated with rabies risk. The herculean task of getting all the millions of stray dogs vaccinated against rabies is highlighted as the main obstacle and reason why India is still battling canine-mediated rabies.
A picture is worth 1000 words?
As a positive example of a more comprehensive approach, Core Questions by Times of India has made a good review video where many of the factors affecting and contributing to large free-roaming dog population were correctly addressed in the script. These included, for example
- need to improve waste management
- need to implement animal birth control programs
- need to have dogs vaccinated against rabies
- importance of responsible ownership.
However, what was disappointing in this video was the use of random stock images and video footage for most of the pet dog related visuals. Most of this pet-dog related visual content did not even look that it was from India.
The high-impact and fast-paced video mainly showed pedigree dogs inside expensive-looking apartments or at the examination tables of private foreign veterinary clinics or hospitals. On the other hand, among the stray-dog related visuals, you had images and video footage of free-roaming non-descript dogs roaming on the streets in India.
What exactly is the problem here?
Why the use of such visuals is harmful for the concept of humane dog population management and rabies control efforts in India?
By showing visuals of only pedigree dogs (whether Indian breeds or foreign breeds) when talking about pet dogs, and by only showing these pets in association with upper-middle class/upper-class -kind of apartments and top-tier veterinary clinics, media enforces the presumed difference between owned dogs/pet dogs and stray dogs and that there are only those two categories of dogs – and that there is no connection between them! Owned pedigree pet dogs living in cozy homes and having access to private vet clinics and then stray dogs in their millions, living on the streets and being hard to catch.
This is far from the full truth.
Most free-roaming dogs in rural India have owners
The use of such visuals entirely ignores all the owned dogs in India that live in small towns and rural villages. They are not pedigree dogs but that does not make them any less pet dogs, any less owned dogs. They belong to people who do not have the kind of houses or private land where dogs could be kept comfortably locked in all the time but that also does not make them any less pet dogs, any less owned dogs.
However, this is not only a question of socio-economics. I would say that in India, anyone who lives with their own ground floor access outside, is likely to just open their door in the morning and let their dog to go out on its own for morning toilet. If such a dog has not been surgically sterilized, she/he may very well meet with other intact dogs on her morning stroll outside and consequently get unwantedly pregnant or cause an unwanted pregnancy.
Lack of solid waste management adds to this problem because wherever household kitchen waste or edible leftovers from restaurants, roadside eateries, chicken stalls and butcher shops is getting disposed, is likely to attract ownerless and owned dogs in that area to hang about.
Examples of existing house-to-house vaccination programs
The first task to be completed to control dog-mediated rabies is to ensure that all owned dogs, regardless of the socio-economic status of their owner and regardless of their pedigree or lack of it and regardless of where they live, are having access to annual rabies vaccination. Annual vaccinations of all owned dogs have to be also monitored through a proper system of pet dog registration. If we don’t yet have even all owned dogs annually vaccinated, how come we point our fingers to the ownerless dogs and blame their non-vaccinated status?
Just by increasing the availability of rabies vaccine for all owned dogs living in small towns and rural villages and adopting an annual house-to-house vaccination model, would decrease the risk of canine-mediated human rabies deaths significantly.
There are excellent, national model programs to learn about the logistics required for such campaigns. For example, Pulse Polio program takes village nurses and vaccinators from village to village and house to house delivering polio drops to children and the Foot-and-Mouth -disease vaccination program by the Animal Husbandry Department goes every year from cattle shed to cattle shed vaccinating cattle.
Getting all owned dogs annually vaccinated is the first, low-hanging fruit, that any comprehensive dog rabies control program has to focus on first. This is not one-off campaign but has to continue annually. Every year. Just like polio and FMD vaccination programs continue every year.
Stereotypical image of a pet dog and owner
However, by selecting visuals that only represent a small fraction of the pet dog scenario media is ignoring this reality. Most owned dogs (pet dogs) live in rural India and in small towns where they don’t have access to annual rabies vaccinations because vaccine is not always readily available in the rural dispensaries. Surgical sterilization services are also often not available, accessible or affordable for the dog owners. This – combined with the fact that most owned dogs are allowed to roam free – is a major factor behind unwanted pregnancies in pet dogs and subsequent birth of unwanted puppies that very often end up abandoned on the streets. Subsequently, this means more stray dogs.
We can only expect owners to be responsible and have their pets sterilised and annually vaccinated if these services are actually available for the owners.
By maintaining a somewhat stereotypical upper-middle class- focused image of what an owned dog or a pet dog is, media is providing an easy exit for any stakeholder department from any need to address the question of how to ensure that all owned dogs are annually vaccinated against rabies. By visually enforcing the idea that pet dogs are pedigree dogs belonging to wealthy, empowered people with beautiful homes and private vehicles, there is no need for the public sector to get involved since these owners of course can be expected to be responsible owners and take their pets to a suitable private vet clinic.
This leaves the question of how to provide access to vet care for all owned dogs unanswered.
Misleading images are used the other way around as well
The visual misrepresentation happens also the other way around. It is very common to mark all non-pedigree dogs and dogs belonging to the more marginal sectors of the society under the label ‘stray dogs’ or ‘community dogs’. Once I was listening to a presentation where beautiful, rather artistic photos of poor-looking children playing with country dogs/non-descript dogs were shown. The core message of the presentation was: “See these poor children playing with stray dogs. They are in risk of getting rabies. We should include rabies-vaccination to the national vaccination program of children.”
I am not a public health economist to even try to get into further details of whether inclusion of pre-exposure vaccination for all children as a national program would be financially possible and how many human deaths could be prevented – considering that you still need post-exposure vaccination if bitten by a rabid dog. My argument would only be that perhaps these were not children playing with stray dogs.
What if they were children playing with THEIR dogs? Our first question should be how to ensure that all owned dogs, including those easily restrainable and friendly dogs as could be seen from those photos, would get annually vaccinated against rabies. To prevent rabies transmission and the risk for these children.
Vaccination of dogs has been shown again and again to be the most cost-effective way to prevent human rabies deaths and there are luckily many and constantly increasing number of districts and municipalities in India who are taking major steps forward in ensuring access to annual rabies vaccination for all owned dogs.