A tight leash on rabies
IF Dick Rubira has his way, every registered dog in Hong Kong will soon carry a tiny computer chip injected under its skin. This will provide a unique and foolproof way of tracking ownership of the pet and checking the animal's health status.
It's part of a vigorous, ongoing campaign against the horrible disease rabies, which is endemic in southern China but which has not occurred in Hong Kong since 1987.
Dr Rubira, a relaxed, animal-loving veterinary surgeon who heads the Rabies Control Section of the Agriculture and Fisheries Department, intends to make certain the dreaded virus does not reappear.
That is why the department is advocating hi-tech measures to control and check dogs, moves that have recently been given fresh impetus by a rash of dog-bite cases.
'Whenever we get a dog attack that makes headlines, the department once again drafts proposals for better control regulations,' he explains. This time, hopefully, they will be accepted. In the past, a small but vociferously active animal rights and pet lobby has fought stricter control proposals.
Dr Rubira stresses he is pro-pet. What he would like to see are sensible, realistic regulations that would protect dogs by forcing their owners to take better care and control of them.
The miracle chip, the size of a grain of rice, is just one example. At present, dog identification consists of a number tattooed on the ear.
It's ridiculous, he says, explaining how dog catchers have to struggle to hold a snarling, fighting dog while they peer through hair to read the number.
With the chip in place, they will wave a scanner, a hand-held machine like those at supermarket check-out counters, over the animal. This will give a nine-digit registration number.
Then it's a simple matter to call the Ag and Fish computer which instantly identifies the registered owner and, vitally important, when the dog was last vaccinated against rabies, giving a safety period of three years.
The computer will also act as a canine criminal record; if the dog has strayed before and been caught or if it has bitten someone in the past, the computer will spell out the details.
His major concern is rabies, and stopping it from spreading should it be imported into Hong Kong. The best way to do this is by making certain as many dogs as possible are vaccinated.
He believes 75 per cent of dogs that have owners are protected. It is an offence to own an unregistered dog aged more than five months.
All dogs must be vaccinated when they are registered. Some dogs lose protection because owners don't get their pets a booster jab.
Rabies kills, and Dr Rubira points out some simple rules. There are two manifestations of the disease. In one, 'dumb rabies', the animal may simply lay down on the side of the road or crawl under a bed to hide. When people try to help the animal, they are bitten.
The other way it affects dogs is the stereotype 'furious rabies', where a mad dog foaming at the mouth wanders aimlessly, attacking anything - a fence, a chair, a baby - in its path.
The virus is in the saliva. If bitten, wash the wound with soap and water. Under no circumstances try to catch the dog. Call police or dog catchers and leave it to them. Try to keep the dog under observation while you are safe, and remember what it looks like.
Although there has not been a rabies case for eight years, the danger is constant. Dogs on fishing boats and wandering over the border are both potential sources of infection.
Anti-rabies teams go along the northern New Territories vaccinating every dog in the villages. The Rabies Control Section also goes on to the fishing fleet to do the same thing.
Last year, there were 2,500 dog bite cases. The law says every time a dog bites a person, the victim has to report to police so the dog can be checked. Dr Rubira believes there are many minor bite cases which are never reported.
Many people believe all registered dogs have to wear collars. This is not so, although police urge owners to provide their dogs with collars.
At present, it's difficult for dog catchers to prove offences like having an unlicensed dog or not exercising proper control.
Dr Rubira's basic drive is for education and better care for dogs, which are virtually the only dangerous carrier of rabies although every warm-blooded creature from cats to bats can also carry forms of the virus.
The department has for years been trying to amend current lax regulations. When there is a savage dog attack, proposals for stringent controls arise. As the panic fades among press, public and politicians, the issue is forgotten.
How do you define dangerous? In some countries, it is based on breeds, with animals such as Rottweilers, Alsatians and Dobermans being listed.
'What we are saying is big dogs tend to be more dangerous than small dogs,' he explains. 'This is not necessarily because they are naturally savage. Simply, these dogs are so large and powerful that if they attack, they are likely to do far more harm than a small dog.' He points to Singapore for what he sees as regulations Hong Kong can emulate. Authorities there list a number of breeds as potentially dangerous. People can own them, but they have to pay for the privilege and take effective steps to control them.
Such listed dogs have to be muzzled and on a leash whenever taken out of the owner's premises. Owners have to take out a sizeable insurance policy to prove they can pay compensation if their pet hurts anyone.
When such dogs are licensed, owners have to pay a sizeable deposit which is forfeited if the animal causes trouble or bites someone. Licence fees for such breeds are higher than for other dogs. Large dogs with bad reputations, such as Dobermans, can be properly trained. The reality in Hong Kong is many owners do not know how to properly train their pets and don't take them to one of the various training courses that are available.
Dr Rubira believes if people have to pay large amounts to have a pet, they will invest time and money in proper training.
'We want to protect both pets and people,' he says.