According to 2019 data, the number of stray dogs in Kerala is 2.8 lakh, but the state has only 78 trained dog catchers and 37 Animal Birth Control Centers.
Following the recent spate of dog bite cases in Kerala, the state’s Animal Husbandry Department has identified 170 hotspots in the state to prioritize vaccination drives on September 15. Areas with a monthly average of 10 or more bites between January and August 2022 have been designated as hotspots.
The vaccination campaign will begin on September 20 and will continue until October 20 with the coordinated efforts of the Department of Animal Husbandry (AHD) and the Department of Local Self-Government (LSGD). Earlier, September was declared as vaccination month in Kerala and pet vaccinations were conducted from September 1.
Assistant Director Animal Husbandry Dr R Venugopal said that at present there are 37 ABC centers and 78 dog hounds in the department. “Kudumbashree has submitted a list of 470 dog catchers. Their services will be used soon.” Dog handlers on the Kudumbashree list must be trained and vaccinated before deployment. The government intends to repeat vaccinations every September in the coming years.
According to the Department of Health Services (DHS), the number of deaths from rabies increased from 5 in 2020 to 11 in 2021 and 21 in the first eight months of 2022. Venugopal said this is due to multiple reasons that have come together in the backdrop of the Covid-19-induced lockdown. According to the 2019 AHD survey, the number of stray dogs in the state was 2.8 lakh.
“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 the ABC units run by Kudumbashree had to cease operations in 2021 following Supreme Court orders. As a result, the number of stray dogs has increased, which coupled with Kerala’s high population density has led to more frequent human-animal interactions and/or conflicts,” he reasoned.
Dr Kishorekumar, a veterinarian formerly with AHD who was instrumental in setting up the ABC unit in Brahmapuram, Ernakulam, said the risk mapping technique used to identify hotspots was a step in the right direction. “The implementation of preventive measures in areas with high incidence of dog bites will be effective,” he said. However, taking in a stray dog for a shelter, vaccination or neutering is a daunting task, he warned. A project like the mass vaccination of stray dogs can only be successfully implemented with the participation of the public.
People for Animals Specialist Sreedevi S Kartha said the government’s initiative was welcome but needed resources. “We can come to a solution only with small steps. Resources and manpower can only be developed as we move forward,” he said.
Ambily Purackal of animal welfare organization Daya said at least four trained workers are required to catch a stray dog. Dayan’s team includes specially trained animal handlers from the National Institute of Animal Welfare. “Even with trained and experienced dog handlers, a team can handle only eight to 10 dogs in a day. Keeping this in mind, the government’s proposal to vaccinate all stray dogs in 170 hotspots in the state within a month is far from practical,” he said.
Animal welfare advocate Sally Varma said sterilization programs for stray dogs should be implemented only after convening a meeting of Monitoring Committees set up under ABC rules. The 37 ABC centers need to be inspected before the program begins, as many have been unused for long periods of time and are poorly equipped to handle mass vaccination or sterilization drives. “Unless a scientific approach is applied from the beginning, the efforts will not be sustainable,” he said.
In addition, such mass vaccinations should involve NGOs, animal welfare groups and also community dog breeders. “If NGOs working on the ground are not involved, the welfare of the dogs will not be taken into account. “Unprofessional handling of dogs can lead to increased aggression and biting cases and does not give the desired result.”