On Monday, news of the death of Parag Desai went viral on Indian social media. Desai, the executive director of Wagh Bakri, one of India’s largest tea companies, was attacked by street dogs outside his home in Ahmedabad. While trying to escape, Desai fell, suffering fatal head injuries.

On the internet the death sparked anger against canines and especially street dogs, even as animal rights activists pushed back, arguing the media was trying to “build hatred against stray animals”.

It wasn’t the only incident of this sort. Over the past few months, videos of canine-human conflict have flooded the Indian internet. They represent battles being fought between people worried about their safety when confronted with dogs and animal rights activists. So bitter are these fights that even the Chief Justice of India was compelled to weigh in on the issue.

Even as this debate rages on, however, both sides agree on one thing: the Indian state must take action to reduce the country’s massive street dog population.

Scale of the problem

There is no government data on the number of dog bite cases in India. However, according to the Association for the Prevention and Control of Rabies in India, a Bangalore-based non-government organisation, there are about 1.74 crore dog bite cases every year in India.

Considering India’s national population of 140 crore, that roughly amounts to one bite per 100 persons, or slightly over 1% of the population being bitten by a dog every year.

What makes dog bites especially dangerous is that being bitten by a rabid dog can infect a person with rabies. Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system and is almost always fatal if not treated immediately. It spreads from contact with the saliva of certain animals such as dogs, cats, monkeys and mice. However, dogs contribute 99% of all rabies infections among humans, as per the World Health Organisation.

India has the highest number of rabies deaths in the world. Out of an estimated 59,000 deaths globally per year, 36% are from India. Moreover, a significant proportion of these deaths, between 30 and 60%, are estimated to be of children below the age of 15 years.

Why is rabies so prevalent here? Because of India’s enormous dog population.

India is estimated to have 6.2 crore street dogs, according to the State of Pet Homelessness report published in 2021 by global pet nutrition company Mars Petcare. In addition, India is estimated to have 3.1 crore pet dogs.

According to Alok Hisarwala Gupta, a lawyer, activist and researcher interested in animal rights, since dogs are scavengers and dependent on humans for their survival, they thrive around garbage and dense human settlements. Since India has a lot of both, especially in its urban slum clusters, dog populations bloom in such areas. Given the failure in implementing animal birth control for dogs by the state, these street dog populations have grown rapidly.

Apart from the large number of street dogs, the other problem is lack of knowledge. Many dog bite patients don’t take rabies seriously enough, according to Madhuri Gupta, Senior Nursing Officer at the Animal Bite and Rabies Out Patient Department at Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi.

In the six month-period between October last year and the end of March, Safdarjung Hospital saw 29,698 dog bite cases – by far the most among the three public hospitals in the National Capital Territory that stock anti-rabies serum.

“Most patients who are given the first rabies vaccine don’t show up for one or more of the later three shots,” said Madhuri Gupta. The three subsequent rabies vaccines are spread out over a period of four weeks after the first dosage. “Others argue with our staff over the need for getting all four shots,” she said. She attributed this to a lack of awareness in the public about the fatality of rabies.

Fourteen-year-old Ghaziabad resident, Shahwez died of rabies in September after being bitten by stray dogs. Here he can be seen being restrained by his father.

Charged recent coverage

Does the increased prominence of dog bite cases in the last few years indicate an increase in such cases? Animal rights activists don’t think so. It have more to do, they say, with the dynamics of how the media works.

On the one hand, gruesome and shocking content is likely to attract views, and therefore gets a lot of mileage on both television news and social media. “It’s a common practice in news reporting to attract attention,” said a representative of Peepal Farm, a street animal rescue organisation based in Himachal Pradesh.

“There is no data from any government agency that points towards an increase in dog bites,” said Sirjana Nijjar from the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations, one of the most prominent voices of the animal protection movement in India. “There is a lot of misinformation and disinformation being circulated, creating unnecessary panic among masses.” According to her, people are being “systematically polarised against street animals”.

Keren Nazareth from the Street Dog Program at the Indian branch of the Humane Society International, an American animal welfare organisation, cited data from her team’s on-ground response and verification of dog bite complaints. “We found that in Lucknow, out of 1,322 dog bite complaints received between April and August in 2023, only 83 were based on actual bite cases,” she said. “Some were due to dogs being startled or dogs having had accidents by fast bikers and then the trauma led to them chasing bikes and trying to bite.”

Meet Ashar from animal rights organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, cited statistics from the state-run General Hospital at Ernakulam, Kerala over a six month period which showed, “that companion dogs were responsible for the majority – 76.5% – of bite cases, not strays”.

On the other hand, Alok Hisarwala Gupta argued that human-animal conflict has been on the rise in urban areas due to rapid urbanisation. The Ahmedabad hospital where Desai passed away also flagged a similar trend. “Lately, we have been getting a lot of cases due to dog bites or accidents caused by stray animals,” it said in a press release.

At the same time, Gupta laid blame for the hysteria surrounding street dog attacks on the dislike of the “urban middle class elite” for “the streets”. This class, he said, “has a problem not just with dogs, but also poor people – both of whom are part of the public street space ecosystem.”

Maneka Gandhi, Member of Lok Sabha, veteran animal rights activist and founder and chairperson of People for Animal, one of India’s largest animal welfare organisations, described the phenomena as “human-on-human conflict” as much as a human-canine one.

“The feeding of street dogs increased after the COVID lockdowns,” she said, speaking to Scroll. “It was led by women and young people. This led to a pushback from older people, especially men.”

Fear of dogs

What did people who lived in and around neighbourhoods where canine attacks had taken place think of street dogs? Scroll found that views were diverse.

Scroll visited Chaudhary Charan Singh Colony in Ghaziabad, where a teenage boy, Shahwez, passed away from rabies in September. The deceased boy’s house bore a deserted look, and his parents refused to speak to anyone.

After the boy’s death due to rabies, some residents claimed the municipal authorities picked up two dogs from the area. However, most were disappointed with the limited scale of action and wanted more dogs to be picked up.

The residents suggested that all street dogs should be “permanently removed” from the area.

Some residents told Scroll a resident named Islam had recently caught and thrashed a rabid dog in the area that had bitten nine persons. Someone complained against him to the police and he was booked under animal cruelty charges.

Islam was reluctant to discuss the matter, simply stating that the matter had been “settled” now.

A street dog walking out of Masjid Wali Gali, where the deceased boy, Shahwez, used to live, in Charan Singh Colony. Credit: Vineet Bhalla

Scroll also visited Sindhi Basti in Vasant Kunj, Delhi, where two brothers, aged eight and 12, died after allegedly being mauled by dogs in March.

Here, among the kutcha houses and dirty, muddy lanes, there were almost no dogs to be seen.

The deceased boys' house in Sindhi Basti, Vasant Kunj, Delhi. Credit: Vineet Bhalla

The house of the family of the deceased boys was locked up, with the parents having gone to visit their native village. However, their neighbours Romi and Raees both said that there was no street dog problem in the slum. Raees said that there had been no dog bite incident in the area in the last twenty years that he could recall and Romi said that children in the area regularly play with street dogs without any parental control. She said that her three-year old daughter was friendly with the street dogs in the region.

Neutering is the solution

Every animal welfare activist that Scroll spoke to was in agreement that the only sustainable way to quell conflict between humans and dogs is by preventing street dogs from breeding.

“In just six years, one unaltered [neutered] dog and her offspring can produce 67,000 puppies,” said Ashar.

Gandhi said that dog bites primarily occur in three scenarios. One, when an unsterilised male dog in heat enters another pack’s territory and gets into fights with male dogs, with humans caught up in the crossfire. Second, when a mother dog loses her puppies – Gandhi estimated that most puppies don’t survive due to infection, disease or being killed by humans or vehicles – she gets aggressive and may bite humans. Third, when a dog has been physically abused by humans since birth, they become nervous in temperament and are more likely to attack people.

According to Shirley Menon, founder of Save Our Strays, a Mumbai-based animal welfare non-government organisation, a regulated and humane animal birth control program leads to the stabilisation of street dog population, as well as reduction of aggression in the dogs. “Once the stress of mating is out of the way, street dogs lead normal lives within the community,” she said.

Ashar said, “In addition to reducing the number of animals on the street, sterilisation is healthy because altered dogs are less likely to roam, fight or bite.” He added: “They’re also immunised against rabies, which stops the spread of the disease to other animals and humans.”