Increase in pets leads to more rabies

CHINA - As China becomes a home to more and more pets and stray dogs, it is finding it ever more difficult to prevent and control the spread of rabies, officials said.

In Beijing, the risk that dogs are carrying the disease has increased as a result of the city's failure to ensure all of them are vaccinated, said Wei Haitao, director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Agriculture's animal husbandry and veterinary station.

As a result, people are at a greater risk of being infected with the virus, which attacks the nervous system and can be transmitted through animals' saliva.

About a million dogs are now registered in the city and have received annual vaccinations meant to prevent and control epidemics, according to Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau.

"Meanwhile, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of dogs are now not being counted in the city's registration system," Wei said. "Many of them are strays in the suburbs."

He made the remark on Thursday at a work conference in the capital.

2010 saw nine cases of rabies virus in humans reported in Beijing. That was the disease's most prevalent year in the city since 1990, according to the animal husbandry and veterinary station.

"We (government officials) are now under great pressure to prevent and control the spread of rabies virus since there already have been five cases of the virus being found in humans in the city in the first half of this year," he said.

In May, a county-level regulation pertaining to dog management was adopted in Yangxian county, in northwest China's Shaanxi province.

The county came to the attention of animal-rights campaigners in 2009 after an effort to combat rabies there led to the deaths of thousands of dogs in Yangxian and nearby places.

Rabies had once killed as many as seven people a month in the county, Jiang Xuenong, deputy head of the Yangxian government, said at the conference.

"Since then, we realized that it's urgent that we improve the systems used to manage and register dogs kept by residents," he said.

Besides regular rabies vaccinations, dog owners are required to provide adequate food, water and living conditions for their pets. The regulations forbid abuse and abandonment.

"The regulation's restrictions related to animal welfare will encourage people to think about whether they really want to keep a dog in their daily life before they become a dog owner," said He Li, an associate professor with the Party School of the Communist Party of China's Shaanxi provincial committee, who is in charge of drafting the regulation.

The regulation is expected to slow increases in the dog population in Yangxian, helping the county to realize its ambitious goal of vaccinating all dogs that live there, she said.

"Since this is only a county-level regulation without strict punishments for violators, we're worried whether it will have a big enough effect," Jiang said.

Beijing and other cities should consider modifying the policies they use to manage dogs, Wei said.

"For instance, in the interest of having more dogs vaccinated, the cost of registering a dog is lower in Hong Kong," he said. "And the punishment meted out to dog owners who fail to vaccinate their dogs is extremely severe. Sometimes dog owners who violate the rules may be held in custody."

The cost of registering a new dog is now 1,000 yuan ($160) in Beijing but will be reduced to 500 yuan starting next year.

"I register my dog on time every year since I want to make sure my family and dog are healthy," said Yang Yang, 24, in Beijing, who has a 3-year-old dog.

"But there is a big question about whether all dog owners see the importance of having their dogs vaccinated, let alone stray ones."

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