Keeping rabies on a tight leash

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India has the highest number of rabies cases globally, affecting humans nearly 99% of the time through contact with domestic dogs. It should be made incumbent on dog-owners to ensure that their pets are unfailingly immunised.

For the greater good — of dogs and humans — pet-owners have to realise the indispensability of immunisation and take responsibility for their pawed wards. | AFP

With summer almost upon us, Kerala seems all set for yet another outbreak of rabies — with food leftovers and garbage being indiscriminately dumped on roadsides by uncaring residents, domestic tourists and eateries. The inevitable result is that every year, with sickening regularity, we read press reports of people being bitten or gruesomely savaged in public places by rabid stray dogs.

The problem basically stems from the fact that most people like to keep a dog as a pet but cannot bother to take such a fundamental precaution as immunising it against rabies, or at least keeping it leashed to prevent it from mixing with strays and getting infected. It is such irresponsible dog-owners who are primarily (and unwittingly) involved in the spread of rabies. Their apathy results in avoidable loss of human lives.

Stray dogs are known to thrive in slums and public spaces, especially around garbage dumps where they source food and squabble with other strays, some of them potential carriers of the deadly rabies virus. Permitting one’s unimmunised dog to hobnob with strays is, therefore, tantamount to exposing oneself unknowingly to the rabies virus.

Indeed, this is the crucial fulcrum on which this grave and recurrent problem spins unchecked: dog-owners’ blatant (if not criminal) disregard for the safety of others (not to mention their own) by not immunising their pets against rabies. Being bitten by a rabid dog is quite a traumatic experience for the victim. So is being chased by one. I still remember the day in 1960 when, as a teenager, I was hotly pursued down an alley in Tiruchy by a snarling mongrel hell-bent on sampling my skinny fundament. I just about escaped being mauled by rushing into an open doorway. The dog was later confirmed to be rabid and killed.

 

 

This unforgettable incident has continued to rankle every time I hear of an outbreak of rabies or of people being attacked by stray dogs. If anything, such incidents clearly demonstrate that we continue to be indifferent to the urgent need to immunise our dogs. It’s something that doesn’t figure at all in our list of priorities, lulled as we are by the mistaken belief that only strays contract rabies and not home-bred dogs.

We need to convince all dog-owners that the primary cause for the spread of rabies is their all-too-common tendency to turn their unimmunised pets loose. While this may free them of what they undoubtedly consider a bothersome chore, it only increases the risk of their as well as countless others’ exposure to rabies. Unfortunately, many are under the misconception that their dear pets will never turn against them, little realising that all that’s required to transmit the rabies virus is not a bite but a mere scratch or a lick.

In the overall interests of public safety, it should, therefore, be made mandatory for all dog-owners to immunise their pets. They should be required to register their dogs with the local corporation, municipality or panchayat and a licence should be issued only to those who produce documentary evidence of having had their pets immunised against rabies as per the officially approved schedule. All unimmunised dogs should be impounded and eliminated should they show the dreaded and tell-tale symptoms of rabies.

Indeed, it would be best if the local self-government bodies could provide the anti-rabies vaccine as well as the services of a veterinarian to administer it. This would facilitate centralised record-keeping and monitoring besides enabling the common man to get his dog inoculated easily. Dog-owners who fail to have their pets immunised should be fined punitively and such canines should be proscribed if their owners still refuse to fulfil this basic safety norm.

The message to be driven home cogently among the populace is that if one cannot afford or bother to have one’s dog immunised, one should never keep one. It’s as simple as that.

Terming the culling of stray dogs as cruelty is not justifiable. It has been routinely done by municipalities in India in the past with highly beneficial results. A vital counter-question that arises immediately is this: is a dog’s life more precious than a human’s? Is it better to let people die of rabies rather than address the cause sternly?

Dispatching a dog that’s a confirmed threat to humans is certainly not cruel. It’s usually the modus operandi that’s objectionable. Rabid dogs are often clubbed to death by irate people on the spur of the moment for want of a better alternative. A lethal injection is the most humane way to go about it. Some of Munnar’s former British tea planters who, at the time of retirement, found it difficult to take their dogs back to the UK, handed them over to the local veterinarian “to be put to sleep” — a euphemism that said it all.

Last year, after a spate of attacks by rabid dogs across the State, the Kerala government launched a drive to sterlise all strays, male and female, in a bid to reduce their teeming numbers. This was a laudable initiative but whether it was — and continues to be — implemented effectively is a moot point. Given their lack of commitment to the task, one just cannot imagine municipal and panchayat workers visiting every nook and corner to ferret out strays.

India has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of rabies cases globally, and in almost 99% of cases domestic dogs have been found to be responsible for transmission of the virus to humans. In such a frightening scenario isn’t it incumbent on dog-owners to ensure that their pets are unfailingly immunised, more so in a country where the immunisation rate is known to be abysmal and even nil in most places?

 

If countries in the West are totally free of the scourge of rabies arising from household pets, it’s only because of responsible and caring dog-owners who conscientiously keep their pets immunised. Indeed, we need to emulate their sense of civic responsibility in this regard by creating widespread awareness of the need to do so.

My father once unforgettably witnessed the harrowing death of a young man bitten by a rabid dog and later observed that he had never seen anything so agonising in his lifetime. Dogs may be man’s best friends. But, as we have learnt to our cost all too painfully, they are also his deadliest enemy when they turn rabid.

We need to remember that every unimmunised dog around is a potential host or carrier of the deadly rabies virus. The message to be driven home cogently among the populace is that if one cannot afford or bother to have one’s dog immunised, one should never keep one. It’s as simple as that.

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