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Perspectives in Health - The magazine of the Pan American Health Organization
Volume 10, Number 1, 2005
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A Special Relationship

Getting a pet means making a commitment to 10–15 years or more of responsible pet ownership. It's the best prescription for both animal welfare and human health.
 A woman and her dog
Photo by Carlos Gaggero

Humans have lived with companion animals for millennia. Archeologists date cat and dog domestication to 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, respectively, while DNA research suggests dog taming may have begun as much as 100,000 years ago—well before the origins of agriculture and animal husbandry.

Ecologists believe dogs and cats first approached humans, rather than the other way around. But humans soon recognized their value as guard animals and pest hunters. Somewhere along the way a bond developed between human and companion animal that only a pet owner can describe.

Today we know that pets can help people reduce their blood pressure and cholesterol, ease loneliness, and increase their opportunities for exercise and social contact. But it's a two-way street. Domestic animals look up to humans and depend on them for food, shelter and care. Acquiring a pet means making a commitment of 10 to 15 years, the lifespan of a typical dog or cat. But not all pet owners live up to that responsibility. Some decide they can no longer afford to feed their pet or take him to the vet, they find the animal takes up too much space, or they think the pet might be happier roaming free. For a variety of reasons, too many pets end up neglected or abandoned on the streets.

This is not just a problem for animals. Without proper care, dogs and cats can transmit diseases to humans and other animals, degrade the environment, contribute to noise pollution, and create ill will between neighbors. Responsible pet ownership is a matter of public, not just animal, health.

 Veterinary examines a dog
Photo by Carlos Gaggero

"How people treat companion animals is intimately related to the socioeconomic and cultural context of communities," says Albino Belotto, chief of the Pan American Health Organization's (PAHO) Veterinary Public Health Unit. "For example, there are people who let their dogs run free because culturally they think it's necessary for the animal to thrive. Others do it because their homes are small and there's no room for pets. The result is a large number of animals on the loose and a complete lack of control over their reproduction."

To promote responsible pet ownership, health authorities and humane organizations have joined forces throughout the Americas to carry out mass vaccination and reproductive control campaigns. Their efforts have produced major successes. Annual mass vaccination campaigns organized by PAHO and its member countries have reduced the number of cases of human rabies by 90 percent in the past 20 years: from 332 cases in 1982 to 35 cases in 2003. In 2003, some 44 million dogs received vaccines throughout Latin America.

In Costa Rica, a low-cost spaying and neutering initiative known as the McKee Project has helped veterinarians sterilize 20 percent of the canine population and virtually eliminate animal shelters (see sidebar p. 28). Widespread promotion of pet sterilization in the United States has produced even greater success. According to the magazine Animal People, about two-thirds of U.S. dogs with owners and 70 percent of all cats are spayed or neutered, an achievement that has helped reduce the population of stray animals significantly.

Pet owners, take care
Dogs, cats and other pets can carry a wide variety of zoonoses, or diseases transmitted from animals to humans...[Read more]

Veterinary health experts say that being a responsible owner essentially means providing one's pet with adequate food, exercise, veterinary care and an effective form of birth control.

"Pets also need good training to prevent behavior problems and aggressiveness toward people," adds PAHO's Belotto.

"One of the more important things is preventing diseases," says Miguel Durán, technical director of the Argentine Foundation for Animal Welfare. "This means following a strict schedule of vaccination and worming." Durán notes that this is doubly important because many diseases that affect cats and dogs are zoonoses, that is, they can be transmitted from animals to people.

 Two kids with their dog
Photo by Carlos Gaggero

Vaccination schedules vary for cats and dogs, by region and even by veterinarian. But in general, a first round of vaccinations should be given after weaning, at around six weeks, when the animal begins to develop its own immunity. Ideally, animals should only be vaccinated when they are in good health, that is, without fever or parasites. Both kittens and puppies require follow-up vaccines in subsequent weeks.

Experts say too many pet owners vaccinate animals when they're young but fail to keep vaccinating them as they get older. And rabies (administered initially at three months and then once a year or every three years, depending on the vaccine) is not the only vaccine pets need. Depending on where they live, dogs should also be vaccinated against distemper (which causes vomiting, diarrhea, severe respiratory problems and neurological effects) and parvovirus (which attacks the immune system and prevents nutrients from being absorbed). Other vaccines are those for canine coronavirus, canine infectious hepatitis, and parainfluenza. If a dog spends time outside near a stream or river, or in an endemic area, leptospirosis vaccine is often recommended.

Cats need to be vaccinated against several viral diseases, depending on where they live and whether they are indoor or outdoor pets. These include feline parvovirus (which causes diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration in kittens), feline herpes (which causes severe respiratory problems), and feline calicivirus (which causes ulcers on the tongue, palate and nasal cavities). Other serious vaccine-preventable cat diseases are feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV, caused by a retrovirus that attacks cats' immune systems.

Preventing dog bites
Throughout the Americas, millions of people are bitten by dogs every year, producing serious injuries and even death...[Read more]

Parasites are also a top concern. Fleas and ticks are the most common external parasites and feed on animals' blood, weakening them and transmitting diseases. Internal parasites are even more troublesome, causing diarrhea, anemia and weight loss. Both puppies and kittens need to be wormed initially by the age of six weeks and periodically thereafter according to local veterinary recommendations.

Birth control

Making sure one's pet does not add its offspring to the legions of unwanted animals is among the most important responsibilities any pet owner has.

 Veterinary examines cats
Photo by Carlos Gaggero

Dogs and cats go into estrus twice a year, and litters average four to eight kittens or puppies. There are currently two primary methods of pet birth control: confinement and surgical sterilization (pet contraceptives exist but are not yet widely available). The first requires keeping males and females apart when the latter are in heat, but this is feasible only with dogs and requires a high degree of commitment on the part of the owner. It's not highly effective. Experts say that surgery is the most effective method in both dogs and cats, and is harmless. It's done only once in the animal's lifetime, to females who have never had offspring or, if they have, following a 45-day waiting period after delivery and only if they are not in heat.

Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, points out that sterilization is the single most effective way of reducing unwanted births and preventing mass killing of unwanted animals, but he also notes: "You have to sterilize at least 70 percent of stray animals to begin to see a reduction in their population."

Responsible pet ownership also requires other things from owners:

A balanced diet. There are pet foods specially formulated to be balanced for dogs or cats. These may be complemented with cooked meats, rice, vegetables and dairy products. Sweets and spicy foods should be avoided, and water should always be fresh and clean.

Hygiene. Pay attention to pets' fur and skin (brushing them and watching out for parasites), as well as eyes, ears and teeth.

Saving animal lives
Costa Rica has drawn international attention for its novel approach to animal control: The country eschews euthanasia and has virtually no animal shelters...[Read more]

Picking up after one's dog is extremely important, and cities throughout the region are instituting so-called "poop scoop" laws. In Buenos Aires, owners who fail to scoop can be fined, but there are few inspectors to enforce the law. As a result, the city ends up recovering some 50 to 60 tons of dog excrement every month. "In contrast, in progressive cities like New York, careless dog owners improve their behavior or pay a $500 fine," says María Ignacia Bancalari, president of the Sarmiento Society for Animal Protection.

Veterinary care. Experts say animals should have regular checkups (at least once a year) and should see a veterinarian whenever they show symptoms such as fur loss, skin lesions, difficulty breathing, persistent cough, behavioral changes, rapid pulse, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, or any signs of pain.

Regular exercise. Just like humans, dogs today tend to be too sedentary, and many tend toward obesity. The solution can be helpful to both pet and owner. "Walking your dog and exercising together is better for both owner and dog than hiring a dog walker," says Bancalari. Many U.S. cities have established dog parks where the animals can exercise and socialize off leash. But only a few Latin American and Caribbean cities, including a handful in Brazil, have followed suit.

Collar and ID. Both cats and dogs should wear collars with identification tags indicating the animal's name and the owner's telephone number. Dogs should be on leashes to keep them from getting lost or hit by cars. Cats should be transported in a carrier, never carried in one's arms.

Looking ahead
 Caged dogs
Photo by Carlos Gaggero

Animal experts agree that a top priority for veterinary public health in the Americas should be more public education to promote proper care, to prevent mistreatment of animals, and to raise awareness of rabies and other zoonoses.

Many such efforts are already under way. In Brazil, São Paulo's Center for Control of Zoonoses created a new Animal Health Program in 2001, which works with animal welfare groups to promote sterilization, registration and adoption. It offers an educational program, Living Better with Animals, to schools and communities. Also in São Paulo, the Quintal de San Francisco animal protection society has joined forces with the Brazilian government to form a national forum on animal protection to carry out campaigns in schools, and to pass legislation that punishes animal abuse.

Not your ordinary pet
One of the most notable pet trends in recent years in Latin America has been the domestication of animals that were once found only in nature. In homes throughout the region...[Read more]

Costa Rica has launched national efforts to promote responsible pet ownership. The country has adopted new national regulations that, among other things, include screening of would-be pet adopters and require owners to vaccinate their pets. Community-based fostering and sterilization programs have sprung up throughout the country.

But there's still a way to go. For many experts, the challenge is to raise awareness, particularly among children, to make society more conscious of the need to protect animals and nature. This means creating organized campaigns that enjoy support not only from governments but also from wide sectors of society.

Graciela Gioberchio is a reporter for the Argentine daily newspaper Clarín.

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