This year, at least four children died of dog bites in India — two siblings aged seven and five in Delhi, a two-year-old in Surat, and a four-year-old in Hyderabad. Footage from the Hyderabad incident spread across social media, provoking outrage. The anger has resulted in housing societies discouraging people from feeding dogs and even employing bouncers to threaten dog lovers.
A week ago, the Bombay High Court said that treating stray dogs cruelly can never be an acceptable approach. It said that taking care of animals is legal and preventing people from doing that would amount to an offence. The order was passed in a case filed by a resident of a society in Mumbai who was prevented from feeding stray dogs. In a similar case in February, the same court observed that if dogs are fed and cared for, they would become less aggressive. In September last year, a Supreme Court Bench orally observed that while feeding dogs is a humane act, protecting people from stray dog attacks is also important.
At least five High Courts — Bombay, Allahabad, Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Delhi — have weighed in on the issue since 2022. The Animal Welfare Board of India issued advisories in December 2022 on the issue. Over the past year, dog attacks have caused nationwide concern.
There were around 1.5 crore stray dogs in India in 2019. Approximately 1.5 crore instances of dog bites were recorded between 2019 and 2022. Chart 1 shows the State-wise number of stray dogs, according to the 2019 Livestock Census. In that year, Uttar Pradesh led the list with a stray dog population of 20 lakh followed by Odisha (17 lakh) and Maharashtra (about 12.7 lakh). In total, there were 1,53,09,355 stray dogs in India.
The chart shows the State-wise number of stray dogs, according to the 2019 Livestock Census
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Chart 2 shows the State-wise number of dog bite cases recorded between 2019 and 2022. Uttar Pradesh recorded 27.5 lakh bites, followed by Tamil Nadu (21.4 lakh) and Maharashtra (16.9 lakh). In total, there were 1,55,29,012 recorded cases of dog bites in India.
The chart shows the State-wise number of dog bite cases recorded between 2019 and 2022
Chart 3 shows the State-wise number of human deaths due to rabies registered between 2016 and 2020, according to the National Health Profile (NHP). West Bengal registered 194 such deaths in the period followed by Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh with 86 and 41 deaths, respectively. However, data on rabies cases and deaths are unreliable as the numbers vary wildly depending on the sources referred to. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2020, there were 268 rabies deaths in India, but according to the NHP, there were only 55 deaths that year. While there were two rabies deaths in 2019 in Kerala according to the NHP, the State’s Health Department recorded eight deaths.
The chart shows the number of human deaths due to rabies registered between 2016 and 2020
With the WHO estimating that 99% of human rabies cases are transmitted by the bite of infected dogs, the National Action Plan for Dog Mediated Rabies Elimination From India has proposed strategic mass dog vaccination as a way forward. If 70% of the dogs are vaccinated, and the effort is sustained for three years, rabies can be eliminated, says the document. The WHO agrees that this is a cost-effective way of tackling the issue. The results of a data-driven rabies elimination programme in Goa, published in the Nature journal in May 2022, showed that vaccinating 70% of the dogs in the State helped eliminate human rabies cases and led to a 92% reduction in monthly canine rabies cases (Chart 4).
Results from a data-driven rabies elimination programme in Goa show that vaccinating dogs helps reduce human rabies cases
While the focus should be on vaccinating dogs for rabies, it is to be noted that all four children who died this year succumbed to bite injuries and were not rabies victims.
Source: National Health Profile, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha replies, 2019 Livestock Census
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