China has a huge canine rabies problem, with thousands of human rabies deaths each year. There are several reasons for this, including large feral dog populations, inadequate vaccination of pet dogs, differences in approach and access to veterinary care for pets, inadequate education regarding dog bite prevention, and presumably inadequate education of people and/or healthcare personnel regarding when and how to seek proper post-exposure treatment.

Periodically, the knee-jerk reaction of dog culling rears its head in China, despite the ineffectiveness of culling alone as a rabies control tool.

Recently, authorities in Guangdong province have banned ownership of dogs (in most situations) and given residents until August 26 to get rid of their pets. Dogs remaining at that time will be put down, except for dogs that are used to protect property worth ~ $750 000 (or more). Those dogs must be vaccinated and "kept locked up." (Why the same things (i.e. vaccination and confinement) can’t be done with any other pet dog is unclear, since being owned by a rich person doesn’t make a dog less susceptible to rabies.)

An expert from the Chinese Center for Disease Control summed up the issue nicely: "This [ban] is not scientific, not humane, and it will not last long. In short term, maybe it could be effective, but after that, people still want to keep dogs."

Culls don’t work well. A cull can decrease the population of concern for a time, but it’s extremely unlikely that it would reduce the population enough to have any longterm effect. Dogs can reproduce quickly and replace the culled animals in a short period of time.

What would make more sense?

  • Widespread vaccination of pet dogs, to reduce the risk of exposure of people from pets that get infected from feral dogs.
  • Widespread vaccination of feral dogs, to reduce exposure of people and pet dogs. Achieving high vaccination rates (>70%) in the feral population is a critical control measure, but can be very challenging.
  • Education of people about dog bite prevention.
  • Education of people about dog bite care, particularly ensuring that they seek post-exposure treatment if bitten by a feral dog or a dog of unknown rabies status that can’t be quarantined for 10 days to ensure it’s not rabid.
  • Education of healthcare personnel so that everyone who needs post-exposure treatment gets it (and gets it done right).
  • Education of public health personnel to ensure that the two points above get done right.
  • Ensuring adequate supply of good quality rabies vaccine and antibody for post-exposure treatment.

Yes, these measures require more work than a cull, and to some degree they also require a culture shift in the approach to keeping pets, but if China really wants to start preventing the thousands of rabies deaths that occur annually, that’s what needs to be done.