The recent strict enforcement of the ban on "large and aggressive dogs" in Beijing has generated a great amount of debate on why, in China, large dogs are synonymous with aggressive dogs. Local media have warned owners of the severity of crackdowns on unregistered dogs and especially concerning dogs that are both "large" and "unregistered." The international media has seized on the dog licensing crackdowns and outright bans on specific breeds of large dogs to point out the seeming lack of love for canines here.

But the lack of love for dogs is not what drives these attitudes or policies. At the core of the fear and resulting regulations restricting dog ownership in China is rabies, one of the deadliest and oldest diseases known to man.

According to the WHO, more than 55,000 people still die of rabies annually worldwide. India reports the highest number of rabies deaths in the world with China coming in second. Over the past decade, the official Chinese news media has reported an average of 2,000 to 2,500 human rabies fatalities annually with at least 95 percent of these deaths resulting from exposures to infected dogs. Compare China’s statistics with that of the one to three rabies deaths reported annually by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States and it becomes apparent that the tight controls over dog ownership in China have a legitimate basis in the protection of public health. Moreover, human rabies deaths in the United States are usually traced to exposures from infected wildlife such as bats, raccoons, skunks, or foxes rather than to dogs.

China’s history of rabies from 1950–2004 has been analyzed by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Science in an insightful report on the "Pivotal Role of Dogs in Rabies Transmission, China." The researchers found that more than 103,200 people died in four rabies epidemic waves occurring at ten-year intervals during that period: 1956-1957, 1965-1966, 1974-75 and 1982-1983. The worst epidemic was during 1980 to 1990 when 55,367 human rabies deaths were reported. As awareness of rabies risk spread throughout the country, the number of deaths began to decline, reaching a low of 159 reported cases in 1996, before it began exponentially increasing again in the early years of the new millennium. Researchers report that "the number of human rabies deaths, from 2001 to 2004 were 854; 1,159; 1,980; and 2,651, respectively, which corresponds to increases of 91 percent, 36 percent, 71 percent, and 34 percent from the previous year."

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This glimpse of history into epidemic outbreaks of rabies in China serves as a background narrative to the social policies instituted to protect public health and to control dogs, the primary vector of rabies in the country. To combat the rising risk of rabies in 1983, a ban on dogs was imposed in Beijing. The only dogs found within the central districts of Beijing were guard dogs protecting government buildings, factories, warehouses and granaries as well as a few service dogs used by the military and in law enforcement. It is probable that the general perception that a large dog was also an aggressive dog began to take root at about this time.

The dog ban effectively lasted until the early 1990s when the Beijing municipal government relaxed its policies and issued the first set of regulations governing the ownership of dogs in 1993, allowing private owners to keep dogs as long as they were licensed, under 35cms from ground to shoulder within the eight key administrative districts and annually vaccinated for rabies. These regulations remain unchanged to this day, but the difference now is the strict enforcement of these laws as the number of dogs in our society continues to increase.

The fear of rabies still persists today as it is not uncommon, walking through local compounds, to hear admonishments from parents, grandparents, and ayis to young children warning them not to touch or go near the dogs "because they will bite you and give you rabies." This fear, instilled during childhood, lasts a lifetime and is one of the greatest challenges we face as a society in educating our citizens that a properly rabies vaccinated dog or cat is protected against rabies. We should also remind ourselves that pet ownership is a recent phenomenon with the majority of Chinese citizens never having grown up with dogs in the household. The common understanding of dog behaviors and the ability to interpret the signals or cues that helps to distinguish an exuberant, playful dog from a truly aggressive and dangerous dog, is not yet a part of Chinese society’s collective knowledge.

As more people have pets and become better educated about rabies prevention and reach the conclusion that aggression is not determined by the size of the dog, we will have made a major step towards becoming a more humane society, one pet owner at a time.

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Mary Peng is the Co-Founder & CEO of International Center for Veterinary Services (ICVS).

Photo: Jon Hurd (Flickr), Les Chatfield (Flickr)

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