A vet visits a Delhi slum: day three- a different slum, different problems

Today (Monday) was the first official day of our pre-organised slum project: I am one of a team of nine volunteers from Ireland hosted by an inspiring human health/education charity called ASHA. I’m the only vet: the rest are from a varied background, including a doctor, nurses, educational workers and members of the public from our local church. If you’d like to read my summary of the background to ASHA, I’ve written another blog entry which you can read by clicking here.

The deal was straightforward: we committed to raising a certain amount of funds per team member to give to ASHA as a donation (and we paid our own airfares and costs out of our own pockets). ASHA then agreed to use us for a week as volunteers in one of the slums that they’re based in.

Most of our team are doing work in the ASHA community centre in the slum. With my particular interest in animals, I’ve chosen to take time away from these activities to investigate the street dog/rabies issues.

After our briefing at ASHA HQ, we travelled by minibus into the slum that will be our base this week: Mayapuri. Situated in West Delhi, this slum occupies a narrow strip of land immediately adjacent to the main railway line out of Delhi. Measuring around 3km long and only 50m wide, this strip of land has been a landing pad for immigrants arriving in Delhi from other parts of India for over forty years.

Mayapuri is an industrial zone, known as a massive car scrap yard where you can buy any spare part for any vehicle. As we walked into the area, we were surrounded by noise: metal banging against metal, drills, engines and shouting. There was grime everywhere, from ankle-deep mud underfoot to men with oil stained clothes, hands and faces. The ASHA community centre is an oasis in the centre of this mayhem: a high-walled courtyard of relative peace….

A vet visits a Delhi slum: day two – educating young people about animal welfare

After an overnight flight from London, I was delighted to be welcomed to Delhi this morning by a remarkable lady who works on the coal face of the street dogs/rabies issue. Bondana Dutta (or Bondi, as everyone calls her) is the founder of a small but rapidly growing NGO charity called Alliance of Animals and People (AAP).

Bondana resigned as a regional director for CRY ( one of the major Childrens Rights NGO’s) to pursue her work with AAP, and she has brought many skills and strengths to her new role. She believes that the way to improve animal welfare in the slums of Delhi is to start with the children: if she can convince young people of the importance of valuing animals, the rest will follow naturally. The children will pester their parents to do more for animals, and in due course, they will mature into a new generation of adults who are strongly pro-animal.

As an introduction to the educational projects she’s created, I travelled with Bondi to one of her projects, in a slum in South-West Delhi.

The cross-city drive to the slum gave me a taste of the lunacy of Indian traffic: half a dozen lanes of a mad mix of vehicles (from cattle-drawn carts to tuktuks to cars to trucks) barging against each other to get ahead, beeping horns instead of using indicators, yet somehow, all keeping going and reaching their destinations.

We pulled up outside the slum, and walked in through narrow laneways past people sitting outside their homes in small groups. The weather in Delhi at this time of year is pleasant: 20°C with crisp clear sunshine rather than the humid 30°C plus of mid-summer. For people and animals alike, it’s a comfortable climate to be outdoors.

After walking a few hundred yards, we came to a fenced off courtyard in the middle of an open area: around fifty children were waiting for us there. This was Bondi’s community: children aged between five and fifteen who have signed up for regular classes in animal welfare. An AAP worker, a former teacher, was giving a class when we arrived. She acted as an interpreter (the children speak Hindu, with just a smattering of English) to allow me to talk to the children.

I asked a few questions and learned a lot: most of the children cared for street dogs which they view as their “family dogs”. They feed them a mixed diet of scraps, and they make sure that they are vaccinated against rabies and where possible sterilised. I asked about what should be done if a person was bitten by a dog: the children knew all about washing a wound thoroughly then seeking post-exposure rabies vaccination.

I then asked the children if they kept any other animals as pets – cats are popular (but they aren’t as visible as street dogs here), some children kept pet fish, and one girl disappeared for a few minutes, astonishing me when she returned cuddling her pet hamster, Pooni.

I stayed for half an hour talking the the children, and the end, they sang a song to me about the importance of looking after animals well. I came away feeling full of hope and optimism: in the three years that she’s been visiting this slum, Bondi has created a population of young people who care passionately about animals, and in the process, they are taking the necessary steps to ensure that they – and their pets – are protected against rabies.

The AAP model is only being used on a small scale at the moment – Bondi would like to have more full time employees to visit more slums running classes like this, but funds are scarce. Bondi has great vision, and with the right support, her dream of all Indian children being taught about the importance of caring for animals will come true.…

A vet visits a Delhi slum: day one – an introduction to street dogs and rabies

I’m just a vet in small animal practice in Ireland, but for the next week, I’m going right out of my comfort zone: I am travelling to Delhi, to visit a slum, where I’ll be taking a look at the issue of street dogs and rabies.

Rabies is one of those diseases that just flits across the consciousness of most of us: we know it’s a terrible disease, and we feel blessed that it doesn’t exist in the UK and Ireland, but that’s about as far as it goes. The truth is that for many people and animals, it’s a daily curse.  Minor dog bites are common all over the world, especially in children. Most often minor first aid is all that’s needed: rarely, a visit to the doctor may be called for. Yet in most countries of the world, the threat of rabies in an additional worry.

If a child happens to live in India, that minor dog bite could have had desperately serious consequences. If he was lucky, he might be taken to a doctor to be given post-exposure anti-rabies vaccination. However, it’d be far more likely that this level of medical intervention would be unavailable to him. Nothing would be done other than basic cleaning of the wound. If the dog was carrying rabies, he would be infected, and in the following weeks, he would develop symptoms of rabies. He might have a fever or a headache at first, with an itching sensation at the site of bite. A few days later, he would develop anxiety, confusion and agitation. As the disease progressed, he would develop abnormal behaviour (such as fear of water), hallucinations, and insomnia. He would go on to suffer a terrifying death.

The most shocking aspect of rabies is that it is completely preventable. Vaccination of dogs in bulk programmes is inexpensive and highly effective: it can cost as little as 50c per dog. In comparison,the cost of a human being treated for rabies after a dog bite is around €40, which is over a month’s salary in the regions where rabies is common.

The World Health Organisation believes that mass canine vaccination programmes are the most effective measure for controlling rabies, and that vaccinating 70% of the dogs in an area where rabies is prevalent is necessary to control the disease in both humans and dogs. Targets are in place to have rabies eliminated from the planet by 2030 but this won’t happen unless we all start paying more attention to achieving this goal

In the recent past, mass dog vaccination programmes have allowed some countries to become rabies-free: there are many examples in South America. In Sri Lanka, this type of programme has reduced rabies deaths from more than 350 in 1973 to just 50 in 2010. Yet in over 150 countries around the world, death by rabies continues to be a threat to humans and dogs. Over 60 000 people die of rabies every year, with over 95% of them in Asia and Africa.

India is the country with the biggest rabies problem, with over 20000 people dying every year. So-called “street dogs” are part of the urban culture. They play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to deal with garbage: in areas where dogs have been forcibly removed, the local rat population has boomed, with bubonic plague then becoming a major public health problem. But street dogs also carry rabies.

The size and scale of India makes this problem seem impossible to solve: it’s the second most populous country in the world, with over 1.2 billion people (nearly 300 times the population of Ireland, or 20 times the UK). Despite the magnitude of the challenge, the answer is still simple: vaccination of 70% of street dogs against rabies, combined where possible, with sterilisation of dogs to prevent breeding. If you think of another comparison: 20000 people dying of rabies every year is the equivalent of  67 people dying in Ireland, or 1000 people dying in the UK. Can you imagine the public outcry if that was to happen? Why should we be any less outraged because the people dying happen to live in India?

I’m being hosted in Delhi by a charity called ASHA, which is primarily focussed on human health and education in the slums.  I have persuaded them to help me to investigate the severity of the rabies and street dog issue in one of their slums, and they are providing me with an interpreter to carry out a questionnaire. And the kind and passionate people at Mission Rabies have drafted a questionnaire for me to use.  In the space of ten days, I am not going to make much of a difference to anything, except perhaps to my own understanding of the issue, and my own desire to do something about it. If you read this blog for the next while, perhaps you’ll learn a bit too.

Rabies isn’t going to go away by itself: it will take the joint effort of many people with a wide range of skills from a variety of backgrounds. Could you be one of them?

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Getting to the Heart of the Matter – Heart murmurs in dogs

February being the month of luurve I thought I would write about matters of the heart. The actual heart. Sorry if anyone got excited there!

Whenever you take your dog to the vet, your vet will listen to their heart and chest. They are checking to make sure the heart beat is strong, regular and that there are no murmurs. A heart murmur occurs when the clear drum beat of the heart (often described as ‘lub dub’) has a swooshing sound. This is caused by the blood not being pushed cleanly through the different chambers of the heart, most often escaping through leaky valves back the way it came. It is one of the commonest signs of heart disease and I am going to concentrate on them in this article.

The breed we see most often with heart murmurs is the gorgeous Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. They often develop them fairly early in life, between 4 and 6 years old is average, but don’t usually develop associated heart failure for at least a couple of years. However, they can occur in any dog and are occasionally heard in puppies (but most will grow out of them)

Heart murmurs are graded from 1-6, with 1 being the quietest and 6 being so loud the normal beating of the heart is drowned out completely. In general the louder the murmur, the worse the leaking of the valves and as the disease progresses the murmurs will get louder….

Marius the giraffe – right or wrong? The great divide

“Danish zoo kills healthy giraffe and feeds it to the lions”
The headlines are appalling, and the international outcry has been almost as dramatic as if the Danish zoo authorities had fed a human to the lions. Do the protesters have a point, or is the zoo simply being honest about an unfortunate but necessary situation?
The answer to this question highlights a major divide in the broad community of animal lovers: those who are in favour of animal rights, and those who believe in animal welfare.

Animal rights people believe that animals have similar rights to humans. Animals are sentient, living individuals, often referred to as “non-human persons”. They have a right to exist and to be granted the Five Freedoms – freedom from pain and disease, freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom to express natural behaviours and freedom from fear and distress. They also believe that animals have the right to life, and that humans do not have the right to take that life away. People who believe in animal rights really  ought to be vegans, since they do not believe in the right of humans to exploit animals for meat or milk. They believe that animals should not be viewed as property, or used for food, clothing, research, entertainment or as beasts of burden. They believe that animals deserve equal consideration to humans: if animals are not given equal rights, this is “speciesism” which is as bad as racism. They believe that in the future, we will look back on our time and see our attitude to animals in the same way as we currently view human slavery….

The truth about your dog’s food? Or sensationalist entertainment dressed up as “the truth”?

Feeding your pet properly is one of the most important aspects of good pet care: in an online Twitter discussion this week, there was broad agreement with the statement that “Nutrition is the single most important environmental influence on a pet’s health and well-being” . But how should an owner choose the best way to feed their pet?  The much-anticipated programme on Channel Five this week, “The Truth About Your Dog’s Food”  is bound to make people reconsider how they feed their pet pooches.

There are many different types of pet food available, from a variety of sources, and it can be confusing for pet owners. There are many “right” ways to feed a pet, not just “one true way”, but it’s common for people to find a way that works for their pet, and then to believe that this is the best way for every animal. I believe that this is the reason why people sometimes become fanatically passionate about certain ways of feeding pets (such as “raw meat and bones”)

I know that my profession – a veterinary surgeon – has been criticised for selling pet food, and there are conspiracy theorists out there suggesting that vets are influenced by the pet food companies that offer financial support to some educational programmes. If you are a believer in such wild nonsense, then don’t read any further – it’ll just be a waste of your time, because you already know that you are not going to agree with what I say….

Caring for the older cat (part 1) – helping your feline friend through old age

Sammy is 12 years old. That is a respectable age for a cat, so I was very happy to hear from his owner that he was still very well in himself and she had no concerns at all. The purpose of my visit was a routine health check and vaccination and based on Sammy’s good report, I was expecting to issue him with a clean bill of health. However as I began to collect a thorough history, it became apparent that things were not as simple as they had first appeared. ‘Now that you mention it, Sammy HAS been drinking more than he used to, but I thought that was normal for older cats so I didn’t think twice.’ He had also had a great appetite lately, in fact he’d been eating an extra pouch a day, and he had been more talkative lately. All things that his owner had associated with good health but could actually be signs of illness. On physical exam it turned out he had lost some weight and muscle mass, and that he had a lump under his neck. A blood test was recommended and the results confirmed hyperthyroidism. He was started on medication and is now back to his normal self, his owner couldn’t believe the difference! She was surprised how the changes had happened so gradually that she didn’t notice them, but was very happy to have her old cat back. And Sammy certainly agreed…..

Are you ready for the year ahead? – the pet calendar with a difference!

So, here we are, another year ahead! Are you ready? What might 2014 hold for you and your pets?

January

Let the dieting begin! With a third of pets in the UK carrying too much weight, many of us will have animals who could join us on the tradition post Christmas slim down! Have a chat to local vets about the different things you can do. Cutting down on meals and treats, changing the make of food you give, altering how you feed them (for example changing from a simple bowl to a puzzle feeder); are all small changes that can make a big difference! Also, encouraging your pets to exercise more will speed up their slim down, not always easy for cats but if you have dogs, more walks will be beneficial to you both!

February

For me, this is one of the most depressing months of the year. The long, cold nights have been going on for what seems like forever & Spring seems a long way away. It is often also the time of year snow arrives, which can cause our pets as many problems as our cars! Take care to ensure any rabbits or other pets kept outdoors are well insulated against the cold and check your dogs feet carefully for ice balls and grit after road walks, both of which can cause painful problems. However, the weather can be fun as well! Don’t forget to throw a few snowballs for the dog (and maybe the cat as well!)

Also, what about Valentines day, will your pets be getting a gift?!

March

Spring is just around the corner! And summer ’isn’t that far away! If you are planning a getaway abroad with your pets, now is the time to start thinking about rabies vaccines and getting their passport sorted, so you aren’t on the last minute nearer the time….

Ask a vet online ‘vet found a soft lump underneath one of my puppies’ – what next?

Question from Eileen Murphy

Hi I have a set of pups.all at 7wks old.took them for there vet check an she found a soft lump underneath one of the girls were her tummy is the vets said it is nothing to worry about! It is a hernia an won’t see to it unless.she gets.spayed but I am still worrying these pups.are bitchions

Answer from Shanika Winters (Online Vet)

Hi Eileen and thank you for your question regarding your puppy’s hernia, I will start by explaining what a hernia is and then discuss the treatment options.

When your puppy had her routine health check with your vet the soft lump that was felt underneath her tummy (abdomen) is what we call an umbilical hernia. A hernia is a gap or opening that should not be there. You have most likely heard of people with a hernia, this will be describing a diseased disc in their back or an area of muscle separation leading to weakness….

Ask a vet online ‘How old does a pupy have to be before moving them onto adult food?’

Question from Tracie J Thorne

How old does a pupy have to be before moving them onto adult food and not the PUPPY variety?

Answer from Shanika Winters (Online Vet)

Hi Tracie, thank you for your question regarding the age at which it is best to change a dog from puppy food over to adult dog food.

I will start by discussing a little about pet food and then tie this in with each stage of a pet’s life and its nutritional requirements.

Your pet dog needs a balanced diet to provide its body with all the ingredients (nutrients) to keep it functioning. The basic food components are Protein, Carbohydrate, Fat, Vitamins and Minerals. Your dog also needs to have fresh water to drink. Pet food that you buy can provide some or in the case of complete diets all the nutrients your pet needs to maintain a healthy body.

Dog food is available in many forms including: tinned, pouches, trays, semi moist and dry nuggets. Which exact form of dog food you choose is a personal choice but may be influenced by how fussy an eater your dog is and the advice of your vet….

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