Indigenous Environmental Health: Report of the Fifth National Conference 2004
The Dog Health Program in Far West New South Wales
Thadd Nagas, Aboriginal Trainee Environmental Health Officer, Far West Area Health Service, New South Wales
Ann-Margret Withers, Veterinarian, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, New South Wales
Thadd NagasWhy do we have dog programs? To improve the health of animals in remote Indigenous communities by controlling disease and parasites which could be passed on to people, particularly children, who come into close contact with the animals. We aim to reduce and control the number of dogs and cats in these communities by surgically desexing the animals and we’re currently trialling a contraceptive implant that remains effective for over two years. We undertake our dog programs in support of the Housing for Health work we carry out within our Population Health Unit. In environmental health we’re guided by the nine healthy living principles of Paul Pholeros and colleagues, and principle number six is ‘separating dogs and children’.
To get these projects underway the major step is community consultation. I ring up a few people I know, get myself invited to their land council meetings and give an introduction to the program. We encourage community involvement and support at all times. Most importantly, we don’t push it down anybody’s throat. We ask if the community requires a program aimed at reducing dog numbers. Then, with their help, we organise a local surgery venue and training so that when we leave, local people can follow up with drugs and removal of sutures and the like.
During the program we euthanase any sick or troublesome animals, at their owners’ request; we surgically spay animals and insert implants. We carry out vaccination, gut parasite treatment, skin parasite treatment, heart worm tests, and general consultation with pet owners. In most of the local communities in the far west, if a dog doesn’t have a collar the local council dog catcher can take the dog away so we also give them all a free dog collar and they love us for that.
Participants in the programs so far have included three vet surgeons from the Department of Agriculture, three from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and three from private practices in Broken Hill and Bourke. The Far West Area Health Service establishes and coordinates the program and provides a lot of field assistance to the vets. The local shire councils always help out by lending us their dog catcher and vehicle, as well as providing assistance with microchipping and registration. We microchip so we can make sure we have the right dog with our implants, but it has actually backfired a bit with the local councils going back to the community, rounding up dogs owned by Indigenous people and handing out fines, and we don’t want that at all.
We also had help from the Pasture Protection Board, RSPCA and vet students from the University of Sydney. Most of all it’s very important to have a local from the community helping out. These dogs aren’t used to us and picking them up is a pretty dangerous job if you’re not a local. These local guys tell me which dogs are ‘cheeky’. A cheeky dog is one that’s going to bite me!
Setting up the surgery is by the far the most difficult task once we hit the ground. We’ve got quite a few vehicles full of equipment—anaesthetic machines, implements for cleaning, drugs, and microscopes for parasite identification. Unpacking and getting everything organised is an absolute nightmare. The vets are kept pretty busy. Usually one vet can surgically desex up to 20 dogs a day. Using the implants we can do a lot more. We set up a recovery area for all the animals, which is quite plush with carpet and a heater. We’re quite proud of the fact that we’ve never lost a dog post-surgery on any of our programs thus far.
My favourite part is involving local schools. We go out with pet programs and educate at three different levels on dog safety and why it’s important for us to wash our hands after playing with pets.
Seven dog programs have covered over 10 000 kilometres and have allowed us to desex just over 650 animals. A major function of the dog programs is building bridges with the community for the health service to carry out their environmental health work. Following on from this work, five communities now have environmental health worker trainees.
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Ann-Margret WithersRSPCA New South Wales has been involved with the Far West Area Health Service in providing dog health projects in Indigenous communities for the past two years. Our involvement grew out of a number of things including:
- the mobile animal health programs that Broken Hill RSPCA has been operating for a number of years
- RSPCA involvement in a program called Big Licks run by Animal Management in Remote Rural Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC)
- individual vets having a strong interest and desire to be involved in the dog programs
- the invitation of the Far West Area Health Service to assist.
During the program each animal presented was given a health check to ensure it was suitable for an anaesthetic, especially given that surgery conditions were less than ideal. Skin conditions were looked at if present and treatment given if possible. Dogs will often have secondary pyodermas (pus-producing skin lesions) from these and other skin irritations so antibiotics were dispensed for use after surgery. If the skin condition was too severe we could not operate on the animal, as they were usually very run down and sick.
A vaccination was given, most importantly to prevent parvovirus, which is a haemorrhagic vomiting and diarrhoea virus that is fatal to the dog without treatment. A heartworm test was performed. Interestingly, we found this to be running at almost 100 per cent positive in Enngonia for dogs over one year of age who weren’t on prevention. Heartworm is a mosquito-borne disease that cannot be passed to humans, but is still a good example of the possible spread of disease in a population by mosquitoes.
Each animal was wormed with a worming tablet and more were given out for use later in the year if there were enough supplies. Some drugs used had multiple effects, such as Ivermectin™, which treats mites, worms and heartworm. Each animal was also permanently identified with a microchip, so it could be followed up during future visits or registered with the council if the owner wished.
If the animal was healthy enough, it was permanently neutered by surgical desexing. The ovaries and testicles were removed not only to stop breeding, but also to assist with aggression and roaming and to help stop development of hormonally-influenced cancers.
A small number of animals were euthanased at the request of the owner either due to poor health or aggression.
RSPCA is not just a welfare organisation but a community organisation and helps to provide programs in accordance with the needs of different types of communities; such as Pets of Older Persons Scheme (POOPS), targeting senior members of the community having difficulty meeting the needs of their pets; Community Animal Welfare Scheme (CAWS), offering subsidised de-sexing and micro-chipping of dogs and cats for low income earners or pensioners in regional areas; the ‘RSPCA Auxiliary scheme’, which offers the same program in the western suburbs of Sydney; and ‘Safebeds for Pets’, for the animals of people who are the victims of domestic violence.
We are there for all animals as we see that all animals have needs. We are not singling out Indigenous communities, but a lot of the townships and communities we have been to are relatively remote for New South Wales and vet services are not available.
The aims of the program are:
- To improve the health and welfare of the dogs. A community with strong and healthy animals has a sense of pride and accomplishment.
- Dog population control. Desexing is providing a means of managing large uncontrolled populations and the associated problems such as excessive noise, scavenging, major nuisance from dogs fighting each other, attacks on humans, and the poor health of the dogs themselves from malnutrition and lack of treatment of disease. As the number of dogs decreases, the individual animals can get better care.
The dog health programs need strong local community support to remain sustainable and progress. A one-off program may have far-reaching effects, but it is the repeatable, sustainable program and the continued education of children that will enhance animal and human welfare in these Indigenous communities.
For further information
Aboriginal Environmental Health Officer Trainee,
Far West Area Health Service
PO Box 457, Broken Hill, New South Wales 2880
Phone: 08 8080 1503
Fax: 08 8080 1683