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It takes a community to fix a canine overpopulation problem

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Kristina A. Muise is currently a Masters student at the University of Winnipeg studying hibernation physiology, ethology, and water balance in big brown bats. She has over seven years of experience working in small animal hospitals in Manitoba. Concurrently she has volunteered in numerous spay and neuter clinics within Manitoba, Ontario, and the U.S with various organizations. In the future, Kristina plans to obtain a DVM degree, and then further her studies with a PhD and a focus in wildlife diseases.

One of the dogs that had undergone surgery in Manitoba. Provided by SADN.

In the heart of Canada, lies a province called Manitoba, a region which contains more than 60 First Nation communities. Located in the northern part of the province, are rural communities reachable only through plane, boat, or ice roads during winter months. The lack of accessibility in these areas puts a considerable limitation on the availability of veterinary services. As a result, an overpopulation of breeding and roaming dogs can persist, which has the ability to significantly impact communities. Additional socioeconomic issues can also occur due to inaccessibility, such as a lack of access to clean drinking water, sanitation, or housing. Understandably, the latter tends to shift people’s focus away from implementing solutions for controlling canine populations.1 That said, the potential consequences of an increased population of roaming and breeding dogs are serious, and can include bites, mauling, and disease transmission—all of which can decrease animal and human welfare.

Roaming and breeding dogs can often pack together and become a threat to human safety. Between 1990 and 2007, a total of 28 recorded fatalities occurred due to dog attacks throughout Canada (an average of one to two per year).2 Of these 28 fatalities, 24 occurred in rural and remote communities (including First Nation territory). Tragically, in September 2019, an incident occurred in which a two-year-old boy was killed by a pack of dogs in God’s Lake Narrows, Manitoba.3 These incidents illustrate the dire need for dog population control in rural communities.

To resolve these issues, a number of animal welfare groups are working toward bringing veterinary services to rural regions. Notably, the organization Save a Dog Network (SADN) is focusing on working with communities in creating viable solutions to reduce canine overpopulation. To accomplish this, SADN has developed long-lasting relationships with members, elders, and governing councils in First Nation communities. According to Katie Powell (Founder/President; SADN), in the span of four years, SADN has helped bring in a total of 27 vaccine and spay/neuter clinics in more than 20 First Nation communities, thereby improving the welfare of thousands of dogs. Clinics like these are incredibly instrumental when it comes to improving the welfare of animals and community members alike.

In early October of 2019, a canine distemper outbreak was reported in Moose Lake, Manitoba, which affected more than 100 dogs in the area.4 As canine distemper can lead to diarrhea, anorexia, severe dehydration, neurological symptoms, and eventually death,5 it can be extremely traumatizing for community members to bear witness to dogs suffering. Distemper is also a viral disease and can be transferred among a large number of species, including wildlife, such as wolves, coyotes, foxes, and raccoons5. For this reason, a disease outbreak like this one could rapidly spread throughout the province. In response to the outbreak, SADN moved quickly to work directly with the Chief and Council of Moose Lake, community members, the provincial veterinarian of Manitoba, and a team of dedicated veterinary professionals and volunteers. By the end of the month, an emergency veterinary team was sent to Moose Lake to vaccinate as many dogs as possible and provide veterinary care to those showing symptoms of the disease.

Then, in early November 2019, a second veterinary team was recruited to travel to Moose Lake with the goal of spaying and neutering as many dogs as possible. I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of that team, which comprised of veterinarians, veterinary technologists and assistants, and volunteers. We boarded our flights at the international airport in Winnipeg on a Friday evening after many of us finished working our day jobs. Later that night, we landed in The Pas and drove down a gravel road covered in snow and ice. We arrived in Moose Lake an hour and a half later, exhausted from the trip. We quickly settled in at a teacherage in the community to get rest before the upcoming day.

Early the next morning, we arrived at the community hall ready to get started. Members of the town crowded in with their dogs, which were checked in and placed in a kennel. We had one surgical station set-up. As one surgery progressed, we would prepare the next patient. This was to ensure that the veterinarian had minimal wait time in between surgeries. The remainder of the day we continued surgeries in this fashion, with another veterinarian examining and vaccinating additional dogs. During this time, community members would often stay in the hall with us and shared their stories and experiences. Late that night we went to bed, tired, but excited to continue the next morning. We carried on the routine the following day, with back to back surgeries until late. By the end of the marathon of procedures, we were all worn out but incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with a community. We then flew out of The Pas early on Monday to return back to Winnipeg.

Over the course of two days, 55 dogs underwent surgery and were vaccinated for rabies and distemper, and dozens more were vaccinated and dewormed. While it is too early to observe the immediate impacts of both the vaccine and the spay/neuter clinics in Moose Lake, they represent the immense amount of effort, time, and passion required to improve both human and animal welfare in remote communities in places like Manitoba. Through my experience assisting in clinics with SADN in these areas, I have garnered a great amount of appreciation for the community members, veterinary professionals, and volunteers who give their time to do this selfless work to help improve the welfare of animals and humans. These projects require a tremendous amount of resources that are not always readily available in order to resolve issues that come with an overpopulation of roaming and breeding dogs. By working with First Nation communities, especially those that lack access to veterinary services, changes can be made.

References

1 Dhillon, Jasmine, Duane Favel, Daryl Delorme, Ann Ratt Lac, and Tasha Epp. 2016. “Finding Pathways for Bite Prevention and Decreasing Dog Populations: The Process of Animal Control for Indigenous Communities in Canada.” 1: 82–92

2 Raghavan, Malathi. 2008. “Fatal Dog Attacks in Canada, 1990-2007.” Canadian Veterinary Journal 49 (6): 577–81

3 Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 2019. “Gods Lake RCMP Respond to Dog Attack on Child. September 24. Accessed December 12, 2019. http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/news/2019/gods-lake-rcmp-respond-dog-attack-child

4 Bernhardt, Darren. 2019. “Nearly 100 Dogs Dead or Sick as Distemper Runs Rampant in Manitoba Community.” CBC News. October 10. Accessed Nov 15, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/distemper-virus-northern-manitoba-1.5316295

5  Deem, Sharon L., Lucy H. Spelman, Rebecca A. Yates, and Richard J. Montali. 2000. “Canine Distemper in Terrestrial Carnivores: A Review.” Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 31 (4): 441–51. https://doi.org/10.1638/1042-7260(2000)031[0441:cditca]2.0.co;2

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