India’s stray dogs are not just a nuisance. They are a public health catastrophe — the source of an uphill battle against rabies. However, they are also the victims of mass killings and public distrust.
The number of stray dogs worldwide has been estimated between 200 and 600 million. Europe alone is estimated to have 100 million stray dogs. According to Bill Garrett, the Executive Director of the Atlanta Humane Society, there are at least 5 times more homeless animals than homeless people.
When certain stray dogs bite humans, they infect those people with rabies, a viral disease that causes acute inflammation of the brain. Each year, more than 15 million people are treated with a post-bite rabies vaccination, while 55,000 people die of rabies. 95% of rabies cases occur in Asia and Africa, and 99% of rabies transmissions to humans are caused by dogs.
This situation is especially pronounced in India. The country is home to about 30 million stray dogs, which amounts to 1 stray dog per 42 people in the country. By some estimates, there are more stray dogs in India than in any other country.
Delhi alone has between 260,000 and 400,000 stray dogs. According to government hospital records, there were 77,294 dog bites in Delhi just between January and October 2015. That’s a bite every 6 minutes.
An estimated 20,000 people die each year from rabies infections in India, accounting for 36% of worldwide rabies deaths. No other country has more annual rabies deaths.
This is caused partially by the sheer number of stray dogs in India, and partially by poor treatment for rabies. When someone is bitten by a stray dog, it is crucial to wash the wound immediately and go through a full course of rabies antibodies as soon as possible. However, this rarely happens in India. Many local clinics and hospitals don’t have rabies vaccine on hand, resulting in a delay while people travel to larger hospitals. People who cannot travel to larger hospitals turn to ineffective herbs, spices, or local remedies, while those who can travel cannot always complete a full course of rabies vaccination (four treatments within a month).
Compounding this problem is the high cost of the rabies treatment, which costs 450 rupees (about USD $7). This is prohibitively expensive for the 60% of the population that lives under USD $2 per day.
Why does India have a stray dog problem?
Ultimately, stray dogs in India are the source of rabies deaths. Many countries have decreased or even eliminated rabies by decreasing the numbers of stray dogs.
Why are stray dogs so much more common in India?
First, a common characteristic of India’s cities encourages stray dog populations — open garbage. Stray dogs are scavengers, so they rely on garbage on the street as a source of food. In countries where garbage is kept in bins and cleaned regularly, stray dogs cannot survive on the streets.
Second, India has fewer government and NGO services that deal with stray dogs. In many countries, the government spays and neuters stray dogs to slow population growth. Many other countries have organizations like Animal Control, the Humane Society, the SPCA, private shelters, and rescue organizations. All of these interventions require a lot of resources. For this reason, India has fewer large-scale interventions and organizations to deal with stray dogs.
What has India done to deal with stray dogs?
India’s all-too-common solution for dealing with stray dogs is mass killings. However, a 1993 law prohibits this practice.
India has attempted to address its stray dog problem for the last two centuries. In the 19th century, the British started killing stray dogs to control the population. This continued through Independence with up to 50,000 dogs killed each year.
In 1960, the government passed the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, which aimed to prevent unnecessary pain or suffering to animals. The Act also established the Animal Welfare Board to advise the government on animal welfare laws and promote animal welfare in the country of India. Despite this act, the government continued its mass killing of stray dogs.
In 1993, the government admitted that its stray dog program was a failure, since both rabies deaths and the stray dog population had increased. Nearly a decade later, the government amended the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act with the Animal Birth Control Rules 2001. The Rules aimed to revise the government’s stray dog program. Instead of killing stray dogs in India, the government would sterilize stray dogs, vaccinate them against rabies, then release the stray dogs back in their original territories.
The Rules also made it illegal for municipal officials to kill stray dogs. However, this has not been effective. Many local governments have since carried out mass killings of stray dogs. In 2008, the Kashmir government poisoned stray dogs in an effort to eliminate 100,000 dogs. In 2009, Meerut (a village in Uttar Pradesh) also faced criticism over mass killings of stray dogs. People started multiple petitions against Meerut, and the killings stopped shortly after.
In 2015, both the Kerala High Court and Bombay High Court passed orders to reduce the stray dog population by killing strays as humanely as possible. Both orders faced significant backlash. An international movement to boycott travel to Kerala gained momentum, and mass protests occurred in Mumbai. Both orders were overruled by higher courts.
Also in 2015, Chandigarh Municipal Corporation wrote to the Union Minister for Women and Child Development to ask for an amendment to the Animal Birth Control Rules 2001. The letter explained that they wanted to be able to kill rabid or aggressive dogs for public safety.
In November 2015, the Supreme Court asked all states and union territories to follow central rules, which ban killing stray dogs in India. The Court ruled that only “irretrievably ill or mortally wounded” stray dogs can be eliminated, which should happen in a “humane manner”. However, it is notably difficult to determine which dogs are “irretrievably ill”. The usual procedure — to take sick dogs into custody and observe them for symptoms of rabies and other illnesses — can be lengthy, expensive, and dangerous for the humans involved.
In 2014, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) announced a less violent policy to deal with stray dogs — training strays to work with police as guard dogs. The NDMC chairman Jalaj Shrivastava said, “If these dogs are going to roam the NDMC area, they might as well work.” The dogs will work with public security forces to improve safety in the city, but they will not be expected to perform high-security activities like sniffing for explosives.
What should be done in the future?
There are better ways to deal with India’s rabies epidemic than mass killings of stray dogs.
In India, sterilizing dogs has not worked well so far because of the sheer number of dogs and lack of resources. However, many animal welfare organizations believe that the spay-and-neuter model — where both male and female dogs are taken from the street, sterilized, vaccinated, and returned to their original area — can be successful with increased manpower and resources.
Organizations like PETA argue that one of the main causes of dog attacks is stray dog migration and breeding. If a dog is permanently removed from its area or killed, other stray dogs will move into the area to eat from the area’s now-abundant garbage. These dogs end up fighting, which can lead to attacks on human bystanders. Meanwhile, since the dogs in that area are not sterilized, they will mate with females. These females become aggressive and will attack humans who come too close to their litter.
The animal welfare organizations argue that the spay-and-neuter model solves both these issues. Since sterilized dogs are returned to their original area, dogs will not migrate to and fight over that territory. Meanwhile, sterilized females cannot breed, which decreases their aggressiveness. The non-profit Help in Suffering has successfully used this model for two decades in Jaipur, leading to zero incidences of rabies in program areas even while rabies increased in other areas of the city.
Other organizations push for increased adoption, which is far less popular in India than in parts of the United States. In fact, New England — which have few local strays thanks to decades of aggressive spay-and-neuter programs and high levels of adoption — imports stray dogs from the southern U.S., Nebraska, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Taiwan, India, Iraq, and other regions or countries.
Another model is Greece’s collective adoption, where communities and the Greek government collectively care for and treat local dogs. The government tags community dogs, vaccinates them, and offers medical attention for any injuries. Then local people care for, feed, and play with the dogs in their neighborhood. This program has attracted attention in a country with a surging population of over a million stray dogs at the end of 2015.
Regardless of which model the government uses, a key part of their work will be changing the public’s idea of stray dogs in India. Because of the number of dog attacks reported in the media, people often see strays as dangerous animals that should be killed. Changing this opinion is important for promoting the adoption of stray dogs and ensuring that people do not support mass killings. National campaigns by the government can help create this systemic change in the public’s mindset.