Dogs in the Developing World Still Have a Long Way to Go

The plight of dogs in places like Ecuador is generally bleak. However, in my experience, it is getting better.


Two of my great passions are and always have been travel and animals. That animals are wonderful benevolent beings is self evident in my opinion. It will surprise nobody that I am especially fond of cats and dogs. Travel is one of the most life-enriching activities I have experienced. My preference is to travel to exotic and developing countries. I find that while traveling I invariably learn not only about the world but also about myself.

But it turns out that a passion for travel and a love of animals can be a recipe for heartache. The situation for most cats and dogs in developing countries is not good. In general, cats are better off because they are more capable of being self-sufficient and are decently equipped to look out for themselves. Dogs, on the other hand, have evolved with humans and are highly dependent upon us. And when people don’t have the resources to properly care for dogs, things get very bad for the canines in a society.

The first thing you will notice about dogs if you travel to a place like Ecuador or the Philippines or Nicaragua or Guatemala or Botswana is that there are lots of them, especially in rural areas. Overpopulation is rampant; the facilities to spay and neuter dogs are sparse at best, and even where the facilities are available, resources are not. People who are struggling to feed and house their families cannot be expected to have the resources to spay their dogs. Governments that struggle to pave roads and offer basic services do not have the resources to promote or fund spay and neuter programs. Intact animals who are allowed to roam freely will mate prolifically. Reproduction and mortality rates are high. Life expectancy is low.

Efforts to control overpopulation, when they are made by governments, often are not of the type that would please most readers of this article. I am told that in Quito, Ecuador, the government routinely sets dates on which poisoned baits will be placed throughout the city. Dog owners are warned to keep their dogs indoors on those dates. The dogs left on the streets are thus eliminated. I have heard similar tales about many other places.

The general lack of resources in developing countries dramatically affects dogs. A dog’s lifestyle is highly dependent upon the lifestyle of his owners. Impoverished owners often lack the resources to buy dog food. The result: Dogs’ diets generally consist of the family’s leftovers, which often are completely inadequate for sustenance. Dogs are forced to forage for food scraps in garbage for their remaining needs. Many dogs fail to meet these needs, and emaciation is a rampant problem among dogs in many places I have visited.

And when I speak of dog owners in most developing countries, I’m often using the term “owner” liberally. Ownership of dogs tends to be very marginal. A dog may “belong” to a family because his territory consists of the street near the family’s dwelling. Pampered indoor dogs who sleep on the bed with the owners (such as my pal Buster) are not the norm.

This is partly because dogs have very low status in many developing countries. They are marginalized to the extent of eating trash. They often are viewed as trespassers by many when they wander onto property. They also are often viewed as dangerous, and this view is not entirely unjustified because many dogs are semi-feral, most are poorly socialized, and dog bites are common in developing countries. Rabies vaccination is rare, so dog bites can potentially be fatal for the human who is bitten. Each year tens of thousands of people in developing countries die of rabies; virtually all of them contract the disease through dog bites.

This leads to a vicious cycle. People kick dogs, throw rocks at them, and beat them with sticks. In some places it is common for people to throw acid on dogs’ faces. They do this because they believe the dogs may be dangerous and may pose a risk to their families. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy –- any individual treated in such a way will become unpredictable and potentially dangerous. One must therefore take great care not to touch or get in the way of street dogs while traveling.

The health of dogs in many poor places is truly heartbreaking. I have seen many dogs who had lost virtually all of their hair to extreme cases of scabies (mange). Heartworm disease is ubiquitous in warmer climates. Routine prevention of intestinal parasites is not common. These worms not only affect the health of dogs; they also pose a significant risk to children.

Trauma is an incredibly common occurrence. When you combine dogs that roam the streets freely with cultures that encourage driving fast, motor vehicle injuries become pervasive. Dog fights are also rampant. During a recent trip to Ecuador I witnessed several serious dog fights. These events were quite emotionally traumatic for me because I was completely powerless to intercede (such an action would certainly have led to me being bitten). Interestingly, in each incident a third dog eventually intervened to break up the fight.

Given my profession, it should come as no surprise that I take a keen interest in veterinary offices when I see them abroad. In many places the offices appear to offer little in the way of true veterinary care; they are often simply pet stores that offer food, grooming, and medications (sold over the counter) with no veterinarian on duty. Even these are rare in rural areas.

On the whole, the plight of dogs in developing countries is bleak. But, I am happy to say that the news is not all bad. There is a long way to go, but things are getting better.

I have been an avid traveler for 20 years. During that time I have noticed a significant change in the state of dogs in the developing world. Eighteen years ago during a three-month trip to Central America I saw one and only one dog who appeared to be owned, loved, and well cared for by the standards of most people reading this. I did not see a single veterinary facility in those three months.

During my more recent travels I have noted an emerging class of owned, well-cared-for dogs. I also have noted that veterinary offices are becoming more common, and appear to becoming more sophisticated. Dogs’ status in many societies appears to be improving.

Since dogs’ lives are so intertwined with the lives of people, I suspect that the gradually improving condition of dogs is linked to the general reduction in poverty that has occurred in most places over the last two decades. As human lives improve, dog lives improve. That is a good thing no matter how you look at it. I am glad that it is happening, but I wish it would happen faster. Sadly, there remains a long way to go.

Read more by Dr. Eric Barchas:

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