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Adopting, registering, and sterilising pets and strays: Saving lives by managing man’s best friend

2 years ago

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What fills a family with joy and love is not always a blood relation, and what constitutes a family is not always people related by birth. It would not be an overstatement to say that a pet’s love for their human owners is unconditional, and an essential part of a family that owns a pet. Even though Sri Lanka, as a country with a proud culture that advocates loving kindness for all living beings, gives a special place to pets, in recent memory, many incidents of mistreating domestic animals have been reported. Also, abandoning pets too is on the rise, in turn causing the stray dog population in the country to increase. An increasing stray dog population is an issue that leads to more issues. On the one hand, these animals suffer due to the lack of food and shelter, and on the other, they become prone to diseases such as rabies, which in turn affects other animals and humans as well. Health authorities recently revealed that discussions are underway to register pet dogs and that the country’s stray dog population has hindered rabies prevention activities. Even though there are policies and practices in place to register pet dogs, it has been emphasised that the process of registration does not take place as it should, and that there is a need to improve and implement that process. Today’s Spotlight looks into the status of managing the stray dog population in the country and what changes need to be done to improve the process.   Registering pet dogs When contacted in this connection, Ministry of Health Public Health Veterinary Services Director Dr. L.D. Kithsiri told The Morning on 3 April that the main objectives of the said programme is to promote responsible pet ownership and to remind the public of their responsibility to put an end to factors that increase the stray dog population. He added that the said plan is still under discussion with local government (LG) authorities and the Ministry of Health. Adding that all parties have recognised the importance of the proposal, he said that even though the Ministry of Health continues vaccination programmes, according to the existing laws, the LG authorities have a huge responsibility in this connection. “The relevant laws are very archaic and are properly implemented only in certain areas of the island. The proposed plan aims to ensure that the registration of dogs takes place islandwide. According to estimates, there are around three million dogs in the country, and of them around 30% are free-roaming stray dogs. These estimates were reached through sampling – we believe that in some areas, there is one dog for every eight persons, while in some areas, there is one dog for every 12 persons.” When queried as to whether stray dogs would also be registered after the completion of stage one of the said proposal which focuses on domestic dogs, Dr. Kithsiri said that it is practically difficult. He added that if a decision is taken to implement such a programme, it would only be possible with the support of groups working for animal welfare or those looking after stray dogs. Speaking on the current sterilisation programmes, he added that in 2019, around 70,000 dogs were sterilised, while in 2020, around 35,000-37,000 dogs were sterilised. Also, he said that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have sterilised around 7,000-8,000 dogs and that the total number of dogs sterilised last year was about 40,000-50,000. “If we can conduct more than 100,000 sterilisations a year, we can make a huge difference. However, we do not have adequate monetary resources to that,” he noted.   Rabies situation With regard to Sri Lanka’s rabies situation, Dr. Kithsiri said that last year, 31 rabies deaths were reported. Among those deaths were two caused by jackals and one from cats. The rest of the deaths, according to him, were caused by dogs. Rabies, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), is a viral zoonotic disease that causes progressive and fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. Clinically, it has two forms, i.e. “furious rabies” (characterised by hyperactivity and hallucinations) and “paralytic rabies” (characterised by paralysis and coma). According to the Health Ministry’s Epidemiology Unit statistics, more than 55,000 people die of rabies each year in Asian and Africa, and more than 95% of all human rabies-related deaths occur in Asia and Africa. Most human deaths follow a bite from an infected dog, and between 30% and 60% of the victims of dog bites are children under the age of 15. The Unit further said that as of 2017, around 20 to 30 people died of rabies a year in Sri Lanka, adding that it is, however, a 100% preventable disease. Data from 2000 to 2016 shows an overall decline in the number of rabies cases in the country, even though cases rose in certain years. Dr. Kithsiri said that even during the Covid-19 pandemic, around 1.2 million dogs were vaccinated last year and that the authorities are hoping to increase it. He added that if 2.1 million vaccinations and 100,000 sterilisations could be conducted a year, in around four years’ time, Sri Lanka would be able to see remarkable results. He added that certain animals other than dogs are also spreading rabies, and that people should be vigilant in that connection too. He noted that some rabies cases that are in fact caused by infected jackals too are recognised as those caused by infected dogs due to the lack of knowledge and information. Adding that in some areas the prevalence of such rabies cases is high, he stressed that there is no sufficient research about such cases. In some cases, according to Dr. Kithsiri, it is unclear as to how dogs contract rabies. Dr. Kithsiri said that according to WHO’s scientific analysis, if at least 70% of stray dogs are vaccinated, people getting rabies can be reduced to zero. He added, however, that this research may not have considered Sri Lanka’s situation, questioning that even if 70% were vaccinated, what steps should be taken to deal with the rest of the dogs. Meanwhile, expressing similar concerns, Dr. Chamith Nanayakkara of the Association of Veterinarians for the Humane Management of the Animal Population, an independent organisation engaged in controlling the population of stray animals by sterilising them, also said that if at least 80% of stray dogs were vaccinated, rabies would not be a pressing issue. He told The Morning that this percentage increases if the number of animals also increases, and that therefore control measures should be taken without delay. He also said that since Sri Lanka is an island, there is no way a significant number of animals can enter the country from outside, and that this is an advantage. Rabies cases, caused by animals other than dogs, is an issue Sri Lanka will have to address some day, Dr. Kithsiri said, adding: “Most people who contract rabies die due to not obtaining proper medical services. Since some of them are not doing permanent jobs and are on the move, there are also difficulties in collecting their details and identifying how they got infected. People not continuing treatment is also an issue.”   Spaying/neutering and the current approach Tashiya Captain of the Justice for Animals organisation said that even though there are policies and programmes in place to deal with stray dogs, their implementation should be further improved in order for Sri Lanka to achieve better results. She also said that registering domestic dogs is not a new law, adding that there is a need to ensure its proper implementation too. Speaking of the practical difficulties in managing the country’s stray dog population, she told The Morning that there are difficulties in conducting population surveys of stray dogs and that Sri Lanka not having a proper, practical plan for the management of stray dogs is also an issue. “There is only one way to manage stray dogs, i.e. reducing their population humanely. This emphasises the importance of the Government’s spay and neuter programmes. Even though NGOs also carry out such programmes, they cannot handle the entire stray dog population. Killing them is not an option. Even though there are funds allocated for the management of stray dogs, it is uncertain as to whether these funds are utilised to achieve maximum results,” she noted. Meanwhile, Dr. Nanayakkara added that Sri Lanka’s approach to managing the country’s stray dog population should be further improved and that there are several shortcomings that are hindering the success of these programmes. He raised concerns over how Sri Lanka recognises the stray dog population. “A stray dog is a dog that does not have an owner or anyone to look after it, and in Sri Lanka, the stray dog population is very low. According to available statistics, there are only around 2.2 million dogs in Sri Lanka, and only around 1-3% of them can be categorised as stray dogs. The reason is that in most villages in Sri Lanka, dogs live freely, without being chained or caged, even though they have an owner. It is wrong to assume that Sri Lanka has a vast stray dog population just by looking at these free-roaming dogs. Also, according to Sri Lanka’s culture, which is rich in religious values, most people have a certain bond with animals, especially domestic animals. Due to this bond, there is a significant number of people who feed, vaccinate, and look after dogs that roam around. Looking after animals, even stray dogs, is part and parcel of Sri Lankan culture,” he added. Dr. Nanayakkara said that what most countries which speak highly of animal welfare do is kill these animals when the population goes up and essentially speak only about the welfare of the remaining animals. “But Sri Lanka attempts to save every animal’s life and goes to great lengths to do that. We do not do it only when it is convenient,” he noted. He further said that human activities also greatly contribute to the existence of the country’s stray dog population, and that looking into such aspects of the issue is as important as controlling the stray dog population. “There is a certain balance of the ecosystems in the environment, and when this balance is destroyed due to some reason, it either causes overpopulation or endangers animals’ lives. Due to development activities, the said environmental balance collapses, and some animal populations decrease while some grow. The absence of one animal may adversely affect another. Most stray dogs eat leftover food disposed of by humans, which contain nutritious properties, and stray dogs’ fertility rate increases. Even though their population is on the rise, their natural death rate is low. This causes an imbalance. After causing the birth of the stray dog population, humans do not have a right to kill them. We can control their population humanely, and there are successful humane methods to do that,” he added. Explaining the history of the management of the stray dog population in Sri Lanka, Dr. Nanayakkara added: “In 1973, 371 people died of rabies in Sri Lanka, and the government decided to control the stray dog population. From 1973 until 2006, Sri Lanka had taken a decision to kill stray dogs in a bid to control their population. However, that programme did not succeed as anticipated, as there was major opposition against it and also there were practical difficulties in implementing that. “In 2006, in the face of requests and the opposition, a decision was taken by the then Government to stop killing dogs, and consequently, the stray dog population rose. To address this situation in a humane manner, in 2007, a programme was developed by a national rabies control committee of which I was a part of. This programme gave priority to the sterilisation programme, and in 2008, it was introduced. From 2008 until now, Sri Lanka has spent more than Rs. 2,000 million for the population control of stray dogs through the sterilisation programme. These programmes need to be conducted in a scientific manner that actually helps to deal with the stray animal population.” Dr. Nanayakkara added that despite the colossal amount of money spent, that programme was not successful as expected, adding that controlling a population should be done in accordance with a systematic approach, after identifying the ground-level situation. He explained that controlling a population should be done systematically, and that in the stray dog population, referred to as “community dogs”, around 30% are very easy to catch, around 40% are difficult to catch, and the remaining 30% are extremely difficult to catch. Meanwhile, Dr. Kithsiri said that the authorities spend around Rs. 100 million a year for sterilisation efforts. “When implementing a sterilisation programme, there are practical difficulties in sterilising around 30% of the dogs (in an area) that are identified as ‘very difficult to catch’. If we leave behind those 30% because they are hard to catch, it can reverse the success of the entire programme. When we go back to that area, we can see that those 30% of dogs have reproduced and the entire population in the area has risen up to the previous number. It is a waste of resources. The Ministry of Health conducts programmes and the government spends a lot of money, but due to the lack of proper plans and not understanding the basics of controlling a population, this money goes down the drain,” he pointed out. As a solution, he suggested that instead of launching such programmes in many areas, first the authorities should cover one selected area in order to understand the practical aspects of addressing this issue. He said that after analysing its results and the practical issues, sterilisation programmes can be perfected and be conducted in other areas as well. Dr. Nanayakkara said that animal welfare groups do a great deal of work in various areas, employing various strategies, and that these efforts would produce better results if the health authorities also extended their assistance. He added that attention has been paid to sterilising cats as well. “Sri Lanka should aim to sterilise 400,000 female dogs in two years (200,000 a year). If we can do that, we can make a huge, tangible difference to the entire stray dog population. Usually, animal welfare organisations sterilise around 25,000-30,000 dogs a year, and veterinarians sterilise around 10,000. Therefore, if the Ministry of Health can sterilise 150,000 dogs a year, the stray dog population can be controlled significantly,” he explained. He also added that since 2000, his organisation has sterilised over 950,000 dogs. While expressing appreciation regarding the authorities’ plans to register dogs, he said that laws should also be in place to take legal action against those violating it too.   Responsibility of pet owners, citizens Both Dr. Kithsiri and Dr. Nanayakkara emphasised that even though managing stray dogs is not an easy task, if the public fulfils their responsibilities as pet owners and responsible citizens, this task would be an achievable one. Dr. Nanayakkara said that pet owners have a duty to either sterilise or vaccinate their animals, and that there are free programmes to help those who do not have money to do that. He added that the general public has a huge responsibility to understand that this is a collective job, and that there is not just one responsible party. He warned that in the event the authorities feel that an increase in the stray dog population poses a threat to the people, the first option they would consider is killing the animals. “We should pay serious attention to this issue because regardless of how much we love animals, if the rabies situation in the country worsens, the authorities may have to resort to killing stray animals including dogs in order to control their population. People have a responsibility to save them from death, and if everyone fulfils their duty as a citizen, the existing programmes will be successful. In order to save them, sterilise your dogs,” he added. Meanwhile, Dr. Kithsiri also said that the main objective behind the proposed registration programme is to promote responsible pet ownership. He added that public officials alone cannot manage the situation and that therefore, keeping one’s own pets vaccinated, even though it is a simple task, would make a great change. Since sterilising is the best option, Dr. Kithsiri said the general public can mobilise and take the initiative to help those who are not in a position to vaccinate and/or sterilise their pets or the stray dogs around them. As repeatedly emphasised in this article, even though the authorities have an undeniable responsibility, the citizens too have a responsibility as either pet owners or mere citizens to contribute to the cause of reducing stray dogs in the country. While not abandoning pets is one solution, adopting stray dogs is also a solution to this issue. It will not only change their lives for the better, but will also save human lives from rabies.

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