The release of the BBMP Street Dog Census 2023 on October 4th has generated significant attention in the media, primarily focusing on the survey methodology and the decrease in street dog numbers. However, beyond the headlines, the survey has implications for citizens and animal lovers.
The census shows a 10% drop in the street dog population from 3.1 lakh in 2019 to 2.9 lakh. While this number is adequate, and the reduction quite a relief, it could be much better with a more aggressive, effective and compassionate ABC (Animal Birth Control) programme.
It is quite heartening to know that the numbers are out and that the BBMP ABC programme is creating some needed impact, as this base is an important roadmap for the future. Additionally, state census shows a significant drop in places with good ABC/ARC frameworks, such as Tamil Nadu and Sikkim.
Compare this with the Dog Census Mumbai, India’s sprawling financial capital, where there has been a large percentage (not absolute) increase of 72% in street dogs to over 1.64 lakh dogs as opposed to 95,000 dogs in 2014.
Quantum-wise, the Bengaluru numbers seem to be nearly doubling the absolute numbers of Mumbai. However, as a trend, the city is showing a declining trend of 10%, which is heartening. Delhi’s census of 2009 showed 5.6 lakh street dogs. With an estimated 60 lakh street dogs across India, managing the population with correct, current data is significant on many levels.
When planning from the perspective of One Health, the global platform that looks at holistic health comprising not just humans but also animals and the environment, the city budget for animal welfare, neutering surgeries, vaccination and rescue become extremely important metrics.
Having an approximate number for the city enables organisations like the BBMP and the Karnataka Animal Welfare Board (KAWB) to assess if there has been a sufficient increase in the number of zones and ABC centres. It also helps to look at budgets, develop additional players to take care of the dogs, and working with city borders and panchayats so that porous borders and an influx of dogs from outside the city can be addressed.
The UN/WHO is clear on its policy on street dog management–only neuter and vaccination are the long-term approach to manage the street dog population. Despite many attacks regarding this stand, the Supreme Court has remained unwavering in its support. It has clarified that any case related to street dogs cannot be heard in any other court other than the Supreme Court, thereby overruling many High Courts that have been aggressively lobbying for culling dogs or sending them to dog pounds.
The ABC Rules 2001 and the more recent ABC Rules 2023 have strongly emphasised neuter/vaccination as the only way to address this issue and nominated the local municipal authority ( in our case, BBMP) to budget and implement this exercise.
Process & reality
There are different ways to approach the street dog census. This year, both the animal husbandry teams and volunteers were assigned the task using global census methodologies. In addition, using technology, like gathering data on software, using GPS apps and data, and drones to assess the population of community dogs, have contributed to the robustness and reliability of the data collected. Obviously, no data can be 100% accurate, considering that many dogs cannot be easily found (which is missing data) or some dogs may cross territorial boundaries that could result in duplication of numbers.
Reasons for lower numbers
The numbers seem to point to population decline due to obvious reasons, such as more ABC surgeries, deaths due to disease and accidents etc. However, the numbers would have been even lower if the other positive factors had been considered. These include better laws and implementation; greater focus in the media on awareness of animal rights; compassionate communities; better street dog care; consistent feeding and nutritious food; vaccination; puppies being rescued, rehabilitated, and adopted; older dogs living longer due to better medication; Government AHVS helpline; and 24/7 animal hospitals; better rescues and responsive shelters; a rise in community care; preventive medication ; safer ABC surgeries etc.
I would estimate that about 25,000 dogs have been saved like this per year and are a part of this population. This is a significant population factor has been overlooked in the census.
Vaccination records equally important
All neuter surgeries are done along with Anti Rabies Vaccination (ARV) administration so that the dog (and human community) is not only puppy-free, but also vaccinated against rabies, and unlikely to pass on the dreaded disease to both the human and animal community. The rabies numbers would be much higher than the ABC numbers, as separate vaccination drives are conducted specifically for community and zone-level vaccinations by the zonal ABC partner.
These vaccinations are not administered just once during the animals’ lifetimes; there is an attempt to renew these annually. The impact on safety cannot be overstated. While studies show that antibodies from rabies vaccination last for over three to seven years, the administration may not want to take a chance with that level of protection. The Indian vaccine, Raksharab, largely used by many government institutions, has been less rigorously tested and titer tests showed they have less efficacy, even though they are on a similar price point.
Read more: How to deal with street dogs in Bengaluru
Impact on humans, health, industry, govt & policy
India is one of the few countries with a no-culling policy. This puts tremendous pressure on the increase in dog numbers with the concomitant rise in bites, rabies and other zoonotic diseases.
The compassionate reduction in street dog numbers is important not only from a community management perspective but also, crucially, from the health lens. India has the highest rate of rabies deaths in the world. The Bengaluru Rabies Helpline (6364893322), set up three years ago, the second of its kind in India, shows a significant drop of 20% in rabies cases in the city, and fortunately, no rabies deaths this year.
Post COVID-19, the One Health Model will need to lean heavily on the confluence of humans, animals and the environment in managing health and preventing viral outbreaks. The collaborative and entrenched model allows for a much more cohesive and effective approach. It has an impact on the street dog management and census.
While the cost impact of surgeries, Animal Birth Control (ABC) administration, rabies vaccines, and manpower is massive, it is essential to consider the high fatality rate of rabies. Every effort to manage the dog population should prioritise humane methods, avoiding the ineffective and cruel practices of culling and relocating dogs. These efforts are crucial to reducing the incidence of rabies in India.
The oral rabies vaccine is being tested, a significant game-changing development for its potential impact on cost, safety and administration. Pilots in Africa have been successful, and India should take the lead in pushing for beta testing. However, one needs to be cautiously optimistic considering that big pharma may have a great deal to lose by an oral vaccine.
An experimental approach is also being implemented, where disease prevention vaccinations like 9 in 1 vaccinations for dogs covering diseases like canine distemper, Leptospirosis, and COVID-19 etc. are being administered to street dogs. This will make them immune to preventable and highly contagious diseases. This is a huge step forward.
While all the above applies to street dogs, a pet dog census must also be done so that rabies, disease, abandonment, home breeding – equal factors in population and disease- are also addressed. For this, sensible, empathetic pet licensing is also necessary.
In addition, while we focus only on dogs, cats as companion animals are also carriers of rabies, and many live in communities or as feral cats. There is no attempt to address this. The ABC Rules 2023 categorically brings street cats into the ambit of ABC/ARC, but except for this petition pushing municipal authorities to step up on this, not much has been done. However, this matter needs to be addressed, as this enclosed online petition emphasises.
Using census data along with other metrics
With the factors mentioned above, increase in effective ABC & ARV, reduction in costs, innovation like oral rabies vaccines, better technology and data capture, increase in Indie dog adoption, and better community participation, it becomes possible to create a cohesive, respectful, and highly collaborative ecosystem for all living beings within the city and state.