Stepping up dog population management to achieve rabies elimination

dog population management

According to the latest estimates, the global dog population exceeds 700 million individuals, of which 75% are roaming freely – meaning that they escape human supervision. Whether they belong to a household or a community, or assist farmers with livestock keeping, a large number of dogs can be found wandering outdoors. In many areas around the globe, dogs hold a special place: they are part of society. Even when they do not have an owner, dogs are frequently fed by people and children play with them, exposing themselves to potential bites. Nearly 99% of rabies cases in humans are attributed to dog bites and unfortunately, free-roaming dogs contribute to sustaining the presence of the disease in many countries. Rabies can be prevented if tackled at its main animal source: dogs. Vaccinating them is the most efficient way to eliminate the disease. Yet catching dogs, especially those who are prowling around inhabited areas, can prove quite challenging.  

Running dog population management alongside rabies control efforts 

Dog population management is a key pillar of a successful rabies control strategy. This multi-faceted approach encompasses measures that aim to enhance the health and welfare of dogs and mitigate the public health and safety issues that they cause to society. Some measures can also seek to influence dog population dynamics when necessary. In the framework of rabies control and elimination, it is a prerequisite to ensure that a sufficient amount of dogs is vaccinated to obtain immunity at population-level. 

Without any doubt, vaccinating at least 70% of the dog population in at-risk areas, amongst other relevant measures, will take us to eliminating dog-mediated rabies. Mass dog vaccination is indeed one of the underpinning principles of the Global Strategic Plan to end human deaths from dog-mediated rabies by 2030, which fosters a One Health approach. 

To support countries in achieving better vaccination coverage in dog populations, the Standard on dog population management (Chapter 7.7, formerly ‘stray dog population control’) has been recently updated, to cover all dogs, whether owned or unowned. 

Handling free-roaming dogs  

The management of dog populations helps ensure that every dog has access to veterinary care, thereby increasing the proportion of vaccinated animals. 

In settings where the majority of free-roaming dogs targeted for vaccination are unowned, the “Catch, Neuter, Vaccinate, Return” approach is another key aspect which is likely to have a significant impact.  

Neutering prevents the birth of unwanted dogs that will likely be abandoned and thus be unvaccinated, leading to poorer vaccination coverage.  

Furthermore, this approach also benefits animal welfare, improving the life expectancy of vaccinated dogs. When applied, these measures can avoid resorting to the mass culling of dogs, often carried out without respecting animal welfare recommendation. 

It is important to note that management interventions such as these need to be tailored appropriately to the local context. “There are different types of dogs, to which different interventions are going to work” reminds Dr Elly Hiby, Director at the International Companion Animal Management coalition (ICAM) and Chairwoman of the ad hoc Group on the revision of the dog population management Standard. It is paramount to understand the dynamics of dog populations in a given place and community attitudes towards them in order to determine which tools would be the most successful and work in the long run.  

Looking at the dog population of tomorrow  

Dog population management requires long-term efforts and not just a punctual set of actions. Dealing with the current canine population alone is not a sustainable solution. The origin of the next generation of free-roaming dogs must be understood to help maintain a high vaccination coverage. 

Dr Elly Hiby insists that “owned dogs are a really significant source of the future free-roaming dog populations”. Therefore, making dog owners accountable for their animals and their potential offspring is critical, through legislation, education programmes and behaviour change communications. To promote responsible dog ownership, the World Organisation for Animal Health has implemented a regional awareness campaign in the Balkans as part of the WOAH Platform on animal welfare for Europe, with a number of tools, such as posters and leaflets for dog owners, as well as playbooks for kids. Engaging owners and/or community carers is a key step to ease the vaccination process, keeping in mind the objective of herd immunity. 

A complex but necessary response 

Having to deal with many factors at the same time, dog population management represents a multi-sectoral challenge, and requires the use of a comprehensive approach. All countries need to assess their dog demographics, take into consideration community involvement and attitudes and build long-term national strategies. 

Investing time and resources in dog population management undeniably supports the end of rabies, by helping obtain a high vaccination coverage amongst the root causes of the transmission to humans. Around 59,000 fatalities could be avoided every year, and this approach is a steppingstone towards our common goal of zero human rabies deaths by 2030.