January 24, 2013

PARANDEKAR: Veterinary Outreach: Helping Animals, Teaching People

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I have wanted to work to help animals in developing countries ever since I visited India when I was a child and saw emaciated dogs and cats roaming the streets.  However, I never really thought about what helping them would mean until I got to vet school.  My childhood ideal of all of the animals ending up plump and laying around in homes was not at all realistic.  There are too many animals and too few resources, and it’s hard for many people to justify spending so much time and money on animals when there are humans who are just as much in need.

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to travel around the world and see different techniques for dealing with animal overpopulation problems.  In Argentina, I spoke with a veterinarian who told me about a spay and neuter clinic in which a group of local veterinarians and volunteers traveled to a different village every other week to alter the dogs and cats roaming the streets.  I happened to be in Argentina during the FIFA World Cup and they weren’t running the clinics then (the Argentinians take their soccer very seriously…), so I didn’t get to go on one. But my impression was that the primary goal of the clinic was high-volume spay and neuter only.  In Laos, I saw next to no help, international or locally-based, for the street animals, but I did learn that most of the animals I had always thought were feral or stray actually did have owners. The owners let them roam the streets, but they could access the house if they wished to.  This is not negligence on the owners’ part; it’s just the way the culture is.

Most recently, over winter break, I went on a trip to Nicaragua with World Vets, a non-profit organization that provides veterinary aid internationally.  We spayed and neutered around 25 cats and dogs a day in the city of Granada, and also provided other veterinary services in a local rural village.  It was a fantastic experience. I learned a lot and met some amazing people.  Most importantly, this trip solidified my belief in the importance of educating locals about animal care when performing any type of animal outreach.

The logic behind spaying and neutering is simple — you can deal with pet overpopulation by altering the animals so that they can’t reproduce.  These programs are known as trap, spay and neuter and release programs (TNR programs for short), which are pretty self-explanatory and certainly seem like a good alternative to thinning out the population by euthanizing animals.  The problem with TNR ,though, is that it often doesn’t take into account the continued welfare of the animals.  Even if the animals get vaccinated, dewormed and treated for fleas and ticks when they get their surgeries, once the organization running the program leaves, there is no one around to maintain the health of the animals.  No one, that is, except for people who live in the community.  In many places, it’s the people’s lack of awareness about animal management just as much as the lack of money and supplies that results in the animals’ unhealthiness.

Providing education could be just as simple as telling the locals what you’re doing to the animals and why.  For example, instead of just applying flea/tick preventative and not explaining what it was, tell them, “I’m putting this medication on your animal to keep the fleas and ticks away, but you’ll need to put more on him every month even when I’m not here.”  Ideally, you would leave the locals with a supply of what they would need or provide them with a way to obtain it.  People all over the world love their pets and from what I’ve seen, will go out of their way to do what they think is best for them.

You can also take providing education to locals a step further than this, which is what I thought World Vets did exceptionally well in Nicaragua.  They built a small clinic and hired local veterinarians to work with them.  The local veterinarians know the people and the animals in the town much more intimately than any foreigner could hope to, and when there isn’t a trip happening like the one I was on, they provide follow-up care and use the clinic to help train more local veterinarians.  This system has been working so well that I would come across street dogs that had already been neutered, and many of the animals seemed to be in better condition than stray animals I had seen elsewhere.

Providing outreach is so much more than just giving money to a community or going on a whirlwind trip and “fixing” things.  It’s about making sure that the changes you make can last well into the future, and the only way to do this effectively is to educate the locals on how to maintain what you’ve helped them start.

Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a second-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at [email protected]. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Nikhita Parandekar