With the news of stray dog bites and rabies deaths taking Kerala by storm, Ernakulam-based veterinarian Dr Kishorekumar Janardhanan and his team decided to put their expertise to good use.

Ernakulam-based veterinarian Dr Kishorekumar JanardhananFacebook
news Kerala dog bites Sunday, September 18, 2022 - 15:15

“A group of veterinary professionals doing a vaccination drive will help undo the atmosphere of hatred towards dogs and offer the hope of a solution,” Ernakulam-based Dr Kishorekumar Janardhanan tells TNM. With the news of stray dog bites and rabies deaths taking Kerala by storm, the veterinarian and his team at Dr Zoo Pet Hospital, Vytilla, decided to put their expertise to good use. In a free vaccination drive organised from September 14, Kishorekumar’s team has vaccinated over 70 stray dogs and a large number of pet dogs in various locations in Kochi city.

While the vaccination drive is funded by the Cochin chapter of Rotary International, experts from animal welfare organisation Daya are assisting the team in catching stray dogs. In the three nights that the drive has been carried out, the team began work on the streets around 11 pm and continued till 3 am.

Kishorekumar was formerly associated with the Kerala government’s Animal Husbandry Department for 10 years. He played an active role in setting up the Cochin Corporation’s Animal Birth Control (ABC) unit in May 2015. Over 7,000 dogs were sterilised there in seven years. His experience with stray dogs during this time has given him deep insights into the issue, he says, adding that the vaccination drive is being carried out with the aim of generating awareness.

Echoing this, Antony Painuthara, councillor of Elamkulam ward in Cochin Corporation where the team started the vaccination drive, says that it was intended to prevent rabies as well as ease people’s fears.

The carrying capacity of a certain area with respect to any species is decided by the availability of food and shelter. Eliminating edible food waste from public spaces is the first and foremost step in controlling stray dog population, according to Kishorekumar. He says that the availability of food waste is the root cause for the exponential rise in stray dog population. “Cutting food sources is a hypothetical situation that cannot be implemented without an improvement in our socio-economic situation. Food waste is absent from the streets only for the half-hour or less that the Corporation's waste collection lorries arrive at collection points. However, if food sources are eliminated, we will see a gradual fall in the population of stray dogs. This will take place through relocation and altered birth-death ratio, that is, there will be more deaths,” he explains.

Pic courtesy: DAYA Animal Welfare Organisation Facebook page
He also points out that stray dogs do not hunt for food. “Even in instances where stray dogs killed domestic animals or poultry, they have not eaten the animals. It is a misconception that dogs hunt for food.”

The spike in rabies cases needs to be understood together with the science of epidemics, the veterinarian says. “In each period, different diseases are expressed in a more pronounced manner in certain epidemiological cycles. Whether there is an actual rise in dog bites is still unknown. In fact, if one were to check the statistics, the difference might be negligibly low,” he says. Of the 21 deaths reported so far in Kerala in 2022, 16 persons had not taken the vaccine, he points out. “Rabies is a disease that the WHO removed from the list of notifiable diseases. It is India’s own issue, and we need to devise plans to tackle it in our own way,” he adds.

He also says that the media tends to highlight the stray dog issue when rabies incidents increase and ignore the topic at other times. “Does that mean that there are no dog bites or deaths during those years?” he asks. He, however, clarifies that the media is now taking a relatively rational approach when compared to its reportage of dog bite incidents in 2015-16. He believes it is not right to comment on the apparent increase in aggression among stray dogs in the absence of scientific studies. “In my opinion, the number of bite cases from the past 4-5 years should be analysed. Unfortunately, we do not have a centralised reporting system in place.”

Pic courtesy: DAYA Animal Welfare Organisation Facebook page
The rise in reported dog bites has once again prompted petitions for sheltering, and even culling, all stray dogs. A similar wave had taken over Kerala in 2015-16 with a prominent industrialist promising monetary rewards to those killing stray dogs. Kishorekumar disagrees with the argument for sheltering and culling. “Industrialists and philanthropists calling for mass culling of stray dogs lack expertise or knowledge on population control of any species of animals. Population control cannot be achieved overnight.”

“If culling street dogs was an actual solution for the current issue, I would have stayed silent. That, however, is not the case. Waking up one fine morning and demanding immediate solutions – after years of inaction on the part of the authorities – will not yield results,” he asserts.

Sheltering too will not offer any advantages, according to the veterinarian. “Even if 40% of the stray dog population is captured and housed in a shelter in one year, the remaining will multiply exponentially on the streets. Comprehensive implementation of ABC is the only solution to preventing an increase in the stray dog population,” he says. Shelters can only be used to house aggressive dogs that are harming humans, he adds.

Pet dog vaccination is not a priority among many even today, Kishorekumar says. In Kudumbi Colony in Ernakulam’s Kadavanthra where he vaccinated around 50 dogs, several of them pet dogs existing in loose companionship with the residents, not one had been previously vaccinated. He says, “It is not the people’s problem alone, it is ours too.”

Areas with similar loose companionship patterns are more prone to a spurt in dog population and rabies incidents. Kishorekumar strongly believes that the stray dog problem should be the responsibility of only the Local Self Government Department (LSGD). “Only a step-by-step approach will work. It should start with awareness generation and go on to licensing and sterilising. Only a project spread across 10-15 years will be successful,” he says.

The very structure of the Animal Husbandry Department is at fault, Kishorekumar says, adding that it is one of the most neglected departments. The primary focus of the department is on increasing meat, milk and egg yield. “The very name of the department is ‘animal husbandry’. It is not in the least pet or dog-oriented. When the dog bite issue came up, the government needed veterinary doctors to deal with it, putting the onus on the department,” he says.

“The basic infrastructure is in itself very poor. Worse than that is the staff pattern and hierarchy that depends on the veterinary doctor to merely collect and upload data to various websites. It is merely the number of dairy and poultry animals and not science that guides the department’s workings,” he alleges. Such a system is inadequate to deal with epidemic-like situations as in the present, he adds.

The Animal Husbandry Department recently conducted a risk-mapping of dog bite cases and declared 170 hotspots across the state where vaccination drives for stray dogs will be conducted from September 20. Of the 14 hotspots in Ernakulam district, none fall within the Cochin Corporation limits. Kishorekumar and Antony credited the ABC programme run here from 2015 for the lower incidence of dog bites. “It was run efficiently in the initial years. However, there is space for improvement in the form of increasing capture rate,” he says.

Kishorekumar personally feels that dogs should always exist as pets and not on the streets. “We should move towards measures that will gradually remove stray dogs. Responsible pet ownership and sterilisation will help achieve that. The government should promote sterilisation by incentivising it,” he says.

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