At the time of qualification, most veterinarians make some form of professional oath. In the UK, this includes the words:
"..... I promise above all that I will pursue the work of my profession with uprightness of conduct and that my constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of the animals committed to my care"
Does this impose an obligation to be concerned about the welfare of all "stray" dogs? Some might suggest this implies a duty of the profession as a whole to be concerned with "animal welfare" in its totality. However, a small animal practitioner might claim that the business of practising veterinary medicine is a means to earn money and that the priority is to ensure the health and welfare of their own family. In a large clinic this might also extend to include the staff employed. Caring for the welfare of clients' pets is a means of achieving this whilst at the same time fulfilling the professional obligations stated in the oath.
This presentation explores the complex relationships between owned and so-called "stray" dogs; the relationships between this overall dog population, pet owners and the community as a whole; and importantly how this may impact on the small animal practitioner. It sets the scene for the rest of the presentations given in the session.
Changing Role of the Veterinary Practitioner
It is perhaps worth considering how the role of the small animal practitioner has changed over the last few decades. Some 30 years ago we would wait in our clinics and treat accidents and diseased pets as they arrived. In part due to financial pressures resulting from increased competition, we began also to promote positive health care programmes (vaccination, worming, nutrition etc). This dramatically changed our working practices and was reflected in the design of new buildings and recruitment of staff. Further understanding of the human-animal bond and the complex relationships between our clients and their pets has underlined the need for veterinarians to provide health care advice that affects the whole family. Indeed, consideration of zoonoses and other threats to human health requires the boundaries to be widened even further to include community health. Some may even argue this "one medicine" approach should be expanded to provide sustainable "eco-health".
Stray vs. Free-Roaming Dogs: The Importance of a Clear Definition
It is important to clarify the definition of "stray" dog. In 2008, The International Companion Animal Management Coalition (ICAM) published Humane Dog population Management Guidance. This builds on the 1990 WHO/WSPA guidelines and will form the basis of the presentation given later by Dr Elly Hiby. This document suggests the word "stray" is not useful, but that the term "free-roaming" be used in its place. The free-roaming population as a whole can include a number of sub-groups including owned dogs that have been lost or abandoned, owned dogs that are allowed to wander freely for part of the day, community dogs and feral dogs. The key point is that individual dogs can move from one sub group to another. It is not a homogeneous group that can be ignored on the pretext of "non-ownership" alone.
Strategies for control will be discussed in a later lecture, but the crux of the message is that an effective strategy involves control of the dog population as a whole rather than just "strays". This clearly includes all dogs owned by clients of small animal practitioners! So veterinarians must be involved and educating our own clients about responsible ownership is an important aspect of the overall control programme.
Problems Associated with Free-Roaming Dogs
Free-roaming dogs have been associated with a number of problems, including:
Direct injury to humans, their livestock or pets
Indirect injury by causing road traffic accidents
A reservoir of disease to humans, their livestock or pets
Pollution from faeces, urine etc
General nuisance resulting from noise
Such problems put pressure on local and national governments, and this has a significant financial impact, especially in countries where rabies is endemic. The public health impact of dogs in Brazil will be considered in a later lecture, but worldwide, rabies remains a major issue with 55,000 human deaths occurring annually, most notably in Africa and Asia. In such cases the financial implications for providing vaccination and post exposure therapy to humans are a tremendous burden on countries in the developing world. Indeed, the strategy to reduce the death rate in humans by simply providing vaccination and post exposure therapy to humans is economically not sustainable; the efficacy of large scale dog vaccination to reduce human deaths is well documented--so veterinarians have an essential role.
Elimination of human rabies by dog vaccination would also have other benefits to animal welfare. The local community would regard dogs as less of a risk and so the nature of their interaction with them would change. This could influence the success of introducing health care initiatives for dogs and implementing education programmes aimed at promoting responsible pet ownership; this will have a positive impact on local veterinary practices.
Human safety issues also include direct injury from bites. In some communities the main risk may come from unknown free-roaming dogs, though in Western cultures the main problem has been shown to be children being bitten by their own dog in their own home. Veterinarians have a responsibility to inform their clients of this and make them aware of education programmes available to help children recognise potential risk situations and modify their behaviour.
It is not only humans that are at risk--free-roaming dogs can also pose a threat to owned pets. Improving the health status of free-roaming dogs by vaccination and parasite control programmes will clearly reduce the risk of disease to pets in the locality.
It is clear therefore that free-roaming dogs must be managed in a way that reduces risks to the community and their pets--so veterinarians have a direct interest.
Population Control Strategies
This subject will be considered in more detail by Dr Elly Hiby. This requires input from all the major stakeholders, and to be successful the final strategy must be agreed by them all. The nature of our veterinary oath does place a moral obligation on us to be the "animal advocate" and so be a key stakeholder. I believe we should be more pro-active in this role.
Animals are sentient beings, and as such have the capacity to suffer. The fact that this needs to be considered when new laws and strategies are implemented has been recognised in the European Union (EU) by the Treaty of Amsterdam, and hopefully in the future on a worldwide basis by adoption of the Universal Declaration for Animal Welfare (UDAW).
The ICAM document provides a framework that can be adapted to meet the local requirements of a specific situation. The components of a possible strategy will include items such as identification and licensing, vaccination, neutering / contraception and education. All these facets require the direct input of local veterinary practitioners and may well generate work and help grow the practice. In addition, the strategy may include the kenneling of unwanted dogs associated with a rehoming programme--these dogs are therefore potential patients.
This presentation started by posing the question as to why a veterinary practitioner should worry about the welfare of stray dogs. How would this impact on the profitability of the practice?
In the last section, it was suggested that becoming involved might provide opportunities for practice growth. Are there any other management arguments?
Veterinary practice has become increasingly competitive as more and more clinics open their doors. In the current global economic downturn, monitoring our performance and profitability has become a must to ensure sustainability. Reducing prices to attract new clients is a very dangerous option and has been called the "quicksand" approach. Rather than this we must provide "added value"--providing our clients with a service they feel is value for money rather than necessarily being the cheapest. Quality of service and image is an essential element of this. Being seen to be involved and caring for animals in the community could well help to enhance an overall caring image and hence help to promote the clinic indirectly. Conversely, failure to be involved could be construed as having double standards.
The reasons veterinarians should be concerned about the welfare of stray dogs include:
Moral argument--as the "animal advocate" the profession as a whole should be concerned they are sentient beings.
Ensuring the welfare of their patients--directly or indirectly.
Promoting family and community health (including that of their own clients).
Enhancing their role as educators within the community.
Promoting themselves as having a caring image.
Making the most of opportunities to grow the practice.