For today’s sixth annual World Rabies Day (WRD) we have a guest post about vaccinating dogs in rural Nicaragua. According to the WRD talking points, there are 7,000 animal cases of rabies each year in the United States but fewer than 3 human cases. Protect your pets by keeping their vaccinations up to date, and be thankful those shots happen in a veterinarian’s office and not the street! For more information, please read our articles about rabies and general pet vaccination.
By Sara Dunbar, MPH, Peace Corps volunteer, Nicaragua
As a Peace Corps volunteer in the health sector, I often find myself tagging along on visits to rural communities to provide essential health services. This includes medical consultations, chronic illness management, monitoring the development of infants and more. However, all of these activities are conducted with people. So you can probably imagine my surprise when I was told one morning that we, as a health center, would be visiting all of the communities of our municipality to vaccinate dogs against rabies.
Dogs? Rabies? You must be joking, I thought, as I climbed into the back of the ambulance.
I’m not sure how often people think about rabies in the United States. It’s one of those diseases that may show up from time to time in a movie or book. I know I didn’t think much about rabies before coming to Nicaragua. But here, rabies is taken seriously. This year alone, we have had 12 human cases of rabies exposure in my municipality, a very small area of Nicaragua.
Here, dogs are vaccinated yearly or they are put to death; the threat is that great. This may sound extreme to those living elsewhere, but without immediate vaccination (prior to showing symptoms), rabies is 100% fatal. It is also an incredibly frightening and painful way to die, with symptoms in both humans and animals such as fever, weakness, loss of appetite, vomiting, loss of muscular coordination, disorientation, irritability, pain and difficulty swallowing or breathing. The Ministry of Health cannot allow the disease spread through the animal or human population.
Back to my unexpected rabies-driven adventure: we drove as far as the rocky dirt road would allow before parting ways with the ambulance and continuing on foot. Up we trudged into the cool, misty cloud forest. After an hour of strenuous hiking, we finally reached a small community of 45 homes clinging to the mountainside. I was tired, sweaty and skeptical that anyone would be showing up with their dog for our vaccination campaign. After all, people here do not generally treat dogs as a pet parent might in the United States.
Many dogs live a hard life here in poverty-stricken rural Nicaragua, much like their people. Dogs are meant to protect the home and the family. They are not generally kept clean, well-fed and pest free. They are rarely taken to the veterinarian. They are never spayed or neutered. Unless extremely “bravo” (fierce or aggressive), dogs are not contained. Generally, dogs are allowed to wander the streets, socialize, fight and scrounge for food. It can be hard to tell if a dog you meet on the road is a stray or is claimed by a community member. However, there are exceptions. Many do care for their animals much like a pet parent would in the United States. It is not that people here do not love their animals, or intentionally mistreat them (although, as back home, animal abuse does occur). It is simply a very different life here: different needs, different cultural beliefs and expectations and different resources. I would hate for people reading this post to see Nicaraguans as animal haters, as that is certainly not the case.
People came. One by one, men, women and children showed up with dogs on ropes. One by one, I filled out the vaccination record forms from a safe distance while the doctor (not trained in veterinary medicine) and guardian secured the dog to a nearby tree trunk for safety and administered the shot. Compared to the controlled environment of my childhood veterinarian’s office, this was frightening. It was satisfying to know that, at the end of the day, we had protected 27 dogs and their people from a terrible disease. By the end of the week, the campaign had concluded, and every dog I saw was wearing a small, blue, plastic tag around his neck. They would live another year rabies-free.
Sara Dunbar is a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua where she works on community health projects. She grew up with pets and maintains her love for animals.