Note: This section provides a brief overview of Dog Health.

    A comprehensive manual on “Conducting Dog Health Programs in Remote Indigenous Communities – An Environmental Health Practitioners Guide” has been developed by Dr Sam Phelan of Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC). Copies of this publication can be sourced through the state or territory environmental health authority or from Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC).
Domesticated dogs have always been closely associated with humans. For thousands of years they have protected us, worked for us and been our pets.

Dogs are particularly important to Indigenous people. It is common for one person or one family to own several dogs. This means that there are often large numbers of dogs in Indigenous communities. If these dogs are not properly cared for this can cause of a lot of sickness both in the dog population and in the broader community. In particular, young children can catch serious diseases from unhealthy dogs.

10.1 Responsibilities of dog ownership

There are a number reasons why people find happiness and satisfaction in owning dogs, for example:
  • they are faithful and friendly
  • they guard people and their property
  • they help find and catch food
  • they are useful working animals. For example, they are often used to help herd sheep and cattle and in search and rescue operations
Fig.  3.39: A happy, healthy dog.
Fig. 3.39: A happy, healthy dog.

In return for the benefits of having a dog, dog owners must be prepared to accept certain responsibilities. When people forget these responsibilities dogs can become a serious health problem or a menace to the community.

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These responsibilities include:
  • feeding their dog/s every day and caring for them properly. Meeting this responsibility takes time and costs money
  • controlling their dog/s. Dogs running unchecked around the community can be dangerous, particularly if they annoy or attack people or other animals
  • controlling the number of puppies their dog has. Too many dogs can be difficult to care for properly, including providing enough food, and hungry dogs can be dangerous
  • registering their dogs
Fig.  3.40: Dogs must be fed every day
Fig. 3.40: Dogs must be fed every day.

Local authorities require that dog owners in towns and in cities register their dogs.

In Indigenous communities the most common problems with dogs are:
  • dogs being allowed to breed unchecked, so there are too many dogs in the community
  • dogs becoming sick or injured because people do not know how to care for them. Because some diseases of dogs can be passed to humans, sick dogs can create a serious health problem in a community
  • cheeky or nasty dogs which can be difficult to control and may bite people
  • starving dogs. Usually, dogs are not fed because people cannot afford to buy the food needed to feed them. When this happens, the dogs tend to attack rubbish bins and tips in their search for food. Sometimes elderly people will give their food to their dogs and go without themselves. This can result in personal health problems
Fig.  3.41: Dogs will often knock over a rubbish bin looking for food.
Fig. 3.41: Dogs will often knock over a rubbish bin looking for food.

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10.2 Diseases of dogs

There are many diseases which can make a dog unhealthy. Of those commonly found in Indigenous communities, many are caused by internal and external parasites some of which can also affect people. Some of these are listed below.

Internal parasites

These animals live inside the dog's body and include:
  • hookworms
  • roundworms
  • tapeworms
  • heartworm

External parasites

These animals live on the dog's skin and include:
  • fleas
  • ticks
  • scabies
  • mites

Fungal infection

Fungi live on the skin, the most common being ringworm.

Parasitic diseases of dogs and other animals which can be passed to humans are called zoonotic diseases. Diseases of dogs and other animals which cannot be passed on to humans are called non-zoonotic diseases. Examples of common non-zoonotic dog diseases are distemper and heartworm.

10.3 Some important zoonotic diseases

Hookworm infection

There is a special dog and cat hookworm. The life cycle of this hookworm has similar stages to the one which completes its life cycle in humans.

The adult hookworms live and lay their eggs in the intestines of dogs and cats. The eggs are passed out of the body in the faeces. This releases the eggs to the ground. The eggs then hatch in damp soil and develop into larvae.

Larvae in the soil may burrow through people's skin. For example, they may burrow through the feet of children and adults walking around without shoes. This can cause skin irritations in the skin where the larvae have burrowed. The larvae do not develop into adult worms in human hosts.

Dogs' and cats' licking, chewing and grooming habits bring them into direct contact with eggs in the soil, on their coats and in faeces. Without treatment, infected dogs can contaminate the soil for many months.

Roundworm (Ascariasis) infection

Roundworms are about 20 cm long, have round bodies and are pointed at both ends. Like hookworms, they live in the dog's intestine. The eggs from the female worms will be passed out onto the ground in the faeces.

Roundworm eggs can only get into the body through the mouth. This can happen if young children eat dirt contaminated with the eggs.

After the eggs are ingested, the larvae hatch in the intestine and travel in the blood to the lungs where they grow and develop. After about 10 days they travel back to the intestine. They do this by working their way from the lungs, up through the trachea (the tube which carries the air from the mouth into the lungs), into the oesophagus (the tube which carries the food from the mouth and then down into the stomach. Once in the intestine they grow to maturity and lay their eggs.

When roundworms infect humans they can cause wheezing, coughing and lung damage. Heavy infestations of the adult worms can block the intestine and other parts of the digestive system and may even result in death.

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Hydatid tapeworm infection

Although the worm is a parasite of dogs it can be very dangerous to humans. The life cycle of the hydatid tapeworm is outlined below.
  1. The adult hydatid tapeworm (about 5 mm long) lives and lays eggs in the dog's intestine. The eggs are passed out onto the ground in faeces.
  2. Sheep (or cattle, pigs, kangaroos, wallabies, goats) take the eggs into their bodies as they graze. These animals are called intermediate hosts in this life cycle.
  3. Inside the intermediate host the eggs hatch and eventually form cysts in various parts of the body. hese cysts contain the new hydatid tapeworms.
  4. The life cycle is completed when dogs eat parts of the intermediate host, such as kangaroo or goat meat infected with cysts. When this happens the new hydatid tapeworm is released to grow to an adult.
Humans can also act as intermediate hosts for hydatid tapeworms. The eggs can be picked up easily from an infected dog. They can be breathed in or taken in through the mouth by people, especially children, who get very close to dogs.

Humans who become infected with hydatid tapeworm, especially with the cysts, suffer damage to their internal organs and experience a lot of pain.

Ringworm infection

This disease is caused by a fungus which forms on the dog's skin. There are no worms involved.

Ringworms appear as small circular patches which grow outwards from the centre. The patch usually has a dry, crusty appearance with short, broken shafts of hair in it. Ringworm causes patchy baldness.
Fig.  3.42: Ringworm infections on a person's arm
Fig. 3.42: Ringworm infections on a person's arm.

If a person pats or touches an infected dog (or cat), he/she can become infected with ringworm. It is also possible for a dog or cat which has ringworm to pass the fungus on to bedding, furniture or anything else which it touches. Humans who then touch these objects can pick up the disease.

Ringworm may be itchy and uncomfortable. Treatment is usually with an antifungal cream but some ringworm can be difficult to treat.

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Mange (dog scabies)

This is caused by a very small mite which burrows into the skin and results in severe irritation. Dogs with these mites spend a lot of time scratching. This may cause the skin to break and become infected. Dogs with this disease are likely to lose their hair. This causes the mangy or ‘leatherback’ look.
Fig.  3.43: Skin parasites cause irritation
Fig. 3.43: Skin parasites cause irritation.

As with the other dog diseases, humans pick up mange mites by close contact with infected dogs. In humans the mite also burrows causing itching and irritation of the skin. Although the dog mite cannot breed or survive on people (it dies within a couple of days), continued exposure to untreated dogs can cause continuous irritation of the skin.

Flea infection

These insects cause much the same skin irritations as mange mites except instead of burrowing they bite. When they get onto humans, they also bite. The place on the skin which has been bitten is usually reddish, slightly raised and very itchy. As with dogs, any excessive scratching can break the skin and this may lead to an infection.

Fleas can also transfer various disease-causing parasites, such as flea tapeworm, from one dog to another.

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10.4 Reducing zoonotic diseases

People can get zoonotic diseases from infected dogs when they come into contact with:
  • eggs of parasitic worms which have come from a dog's faeces and are in the soil
  • eggs or cysts of parasitic worms which are in a dog's mouth or on its lips
  • larvae of parasitic worms which are in water or damp soil
  • mites that cause skin diseases which are on the dog's skin or anything the dog touches, such as beds, chairs, clothing, rugs and floors
Fig.  3.44: Dogs should be kept off people's beds.
Fig. 3.44: Dogs should be kept off people's beds.

The precautions listed below should be taken to reduce the chances of getting diseases from dogs or cats.
  • Do not cuddle or touch dogs or cats any more than is necessary
  • Do not let a dog or cat lick a person's face
  • Avoid contact between the ground and bare skin. Always wear shoes, boots, thongs or sandals when outdoors. Do not allow babies to sit on the ground if they are not wearing pants
  • Make sure young children do not eat soil
  • Try to avoid having any permanent moist areas of soil around the yard
  • If a dog or cat shows signs of illness have it treated immediately
  • Treat the dog or cat regularly for internal parasitic worms and for the various skin parasites
  • Wash the dog's or cat’s bedding regularly