According to 2019 data, Kerala’s stray dog population stands at 2.8 lakh, but the state has only 78 trained dog catchers and 37 animal birth control centres.
Following the recent spate of dog bite cases in Kerala, the state Animal Husbandry Department on September 15 identified 170 hotspots across the state to prioritize vaccination campaigns. Locations that reported a monthly average of 10 or more bites between January and August 2022 were selected as hotspots.
The vaccination campaign is scheduled to start on September 20 and will continue until October 20 through the coordinated efforts of the Livestock Department (AHD) and the Local Government Department (LSGD). Previously, September was declared Vaccination Month in Kerala and vaccinations of pet dogs have been carried out since September 1st.
Deputy Livestock Manager Dr R Venugopal said 37 ABC centers and 78 dog catchers are now available with the department. “The Kudumbashree submitted a list of 470 dog catchers. Their services will soon be used,” he said. Kudumbashree list dog catchers, however, must be trained and vaccinated before being deployed. The government intends to carry out follow-up vaccinations every September in the coming years.
The number of reported rabies deaths rose from five in 2020 to 11 in 2021 and 21 in the first eight months of 2022, according to data from the Directorate of Health Services (DHS). This is due to multiple reasons that have come together against the backdrop of the Covid-19-induced lockdown, Venugopal said. The state had a stray dog population of 2.8 lakh according to a 2019 AHD survey.
“Many dog owners failed to vaccinate their pets in time during the pandemic. The Animal Birth Control (ABC) program for stray dogs was also affected during the lockdown, and ABC units run by Kudumbashree had to halt operations in 2021 following High Court orders. As a result, the stray dog population has increased which, combined with Kerala’s high population density, has led to more frequent human-animal interactions and/or conflicts,” he explained.
Dr Kishorekumar, a vet formerly employed by AHD who was instrumental in setting up the ABC unit in Brahmapuram, Ernakulam, said the risk mapping technique used to identify hotspots is a not in the right direction. “Introducing preventative measures in areas where dog bite incidents are high will prove effective,” he said. However, capturing a stray dog, whether for shelter, vaccination or neutering, is an extremely difficult task, he warned. A project such as the mass vaccination of stray dogs can only be undertaken successfully with the participation of the public.
People for Animals Administrator Sreedevi S Kartha said the government initiative was welcome but needed resources. “We can only arrive at a solution in small steps. Resources and manpower can only be developed as you go,” she said.
Ambily Purackal of Daya, an animal welfare organization, said at least four trained people are needed to capture a street dog. Daya’s team includes experts who have received specialized training in animal handling from the National Institute of Animal Welfare. “Even with trained and experienced handlers, a team will only be able to capture eight to ten dogs in a day. Given this, the government’s proposal to vaccinate all street dogs in the state’s 170 hotspots with 78 dog catchers in a single month is far from practical,” she said.
Sally Varma, an animal welfare advocate, said stray dog neutering programs should only be carried out after a meeting of oversight committees, set up under ABC rules, has been convened. An inspection of 37 ABC centers is needed before the program begins, as many have not been used for a long time and are ill-equipped to handle mass vaccination or sterilization campaigns, she said. “Unless a science-based approach is employed early on, efforts may not yield lasting results,” she said.
Additionally, mass vaccinations like this should involve NGOs, animal welfare groups, and also community dog feeders. “Unless NGOs working on the ground are involved, the welfare of the dogs will be ignored. Unprofessional handling of dogs can lead to increased aggression and biting cases and not yield the desired results,” she said.