Rabies research in northern Australia – how far will a dog roam?


Researchers from the University of Sydney initiated a project to estimate the impact of a rabies incursion in Indigenous communities in northern Australia by addressing the following questions: How will rabies spread upon incursion? What is the best control strategy (vaccination, dog confinement, population control)? What impact will a rabies outbreak have?

The way in which an infectious disease such as rabies spreads depends on the contact frequency between dogs. However, little is known about the roaming behaviour of dogs in Indigenous communities. Therefore, Michael Ward and Salome Dürr from the veterinary faculty of The University of Sydney conducted field studies in two regions in the north of Australia: in the Northern Peninsula Area (NPA) of Cape York, where five communities (Injinoo, Umagico, Bamaga, New Mapoon and Bamaga) are located and in the East Arnhem Shire in the top end of the Northern Territory, where the study was conducted in Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island. The aim of the study is to collect and analyse data on the dogs’ roaming behaviour and identify the influence of dog specific (age, gender and breed) and environmental specific (season and community) factors. These data will be used to estimate contact rates between dogs and build a simulation model for potential rabies spread in these regions.

Together with the local environmental and animal health workers, owners from over 80 dogs were identified to participate in the study. A GPS unit was attached to each dog for a time period of a few days to record where the dogs were moving. When retrieving the collars, dogs were treated against parasites (mites, ticks, worms) and dog food was handed over as an acknowledgement for the participation in the study. We detected that most of the dogs do not roam far away from their home; however some of them cover large areas of their community or beyond. These far roaming dogs are of particular interest because they may spread an infectious disease more rapidly. The home range sizes are not significantly influenced by the dog’s age, gender or breed; however the dogs do roam more on the pre- than post-wet season. We have also begun genetics studies of these dogs. In Galiwin’ku, many dogs are dingo hybrids, in contrast to the NPA communities.

The project profits from a very successful collaboration with a range of different organizations and people involved. The research partners include The University of Sydney, Queensland Health (Clayton Abreu), NPA Regional Council (George Mara, Frank Mau, Ron Wapau), East Arnhem Regional Council (Emma Kennedy, Philippa Dhagapan, Virginia Barratj and Sharon Wunungmurra), the Northern Australian Quarantine Strategy (Beth Cookson), Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (Jan Allen, Bonny Cumming, John Skuja), the NSW Department of Primary Industries (Peter Felming) and The University of New England (Jess Sparkes). The project is funded by DAFF’s Wildlife Exotic Disease Preparedness Program, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), The University of Sydney Sydney School of Veterinary Science’s Whitehead Bequest and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Also, we thank all dog owners who have participated in the study so far and we will probably return again to the communities to collect more data.

Further information about the project:

Anne Fawcett

I am a companion animal practitioner based in Sydney. I am been a member of AMRRIC (Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities) and have participated in dog programs in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory in locations including Yuendumu, Mutitjulu and the Tiwi Islands. In 2014 I moderated a hypothetical scenario about rabies incursion into remote communities in Northern Australia as part of the AMRRIC 10th anniversary conference.

I am very keen to support our Faculty's Indigenous students.

Dogs in Indigenous communities

Courtenay Bombara is completing her honours project for her Veterinary Science degree in the same area of research and is exploring the use of genetics and video camera collars to investigate short-term and long-term contact between community dogs in these same study sites. This information will be used in conjunction with the roaming data already collected to investigate possible behavioral and genetic differences in dogs of two different roaming groups. Additionally she used the presence of dingo genes in community dogs as evidence of domestic dog - wild dog interactions and looked at population structure and gene flow between and within different dog populations as evidence of long-term interactions.

Finally she explored the use of video camera collars to characterize the types of contacts that were occurring, all of which have important implications for disease transmission.

University of Sydney Healthy Dogs - Healthy Communities Programme

The University of Sydney Sydney School of Veterinary Science “Healthy Dogs - Healthy Communities” Programme commenced in March 2007 and was funded by an ARC Linkage Grant. The aim of this research project was to evaluate the impact of new interdisciplinary interventions to enhance dog health in order to benefit community health outcomes in 6 remote Aboriginal communities across Australia.

The project’s principal investigator was the late Dr Robert Dixon. Dr Graeme Brown was an ARC Research Fellow involved with the project together with two post-graduate students. Dr Sophie Constable was awarded a PhD for her thesis titled “Knowledge-sharing education and training to enhance dog health initiatives in remote and rural Indigenous communities in Australia” and Layla Schrieber was awarded a MSc (Vet Science) for her thesis titled “Streptococci in an Australian Aboriginal community: is there a link between dogs and humans?”

The communities chosen for the programme were Ti Tree in Central Australia, Bidyadanga in Western Australia, Tiwi Islands in Northern Territory, Yarrabah in Queensland, Walgett/Collarenebri and Goodooga in NSW. In all communities, dogs were given a health check and sampled for infectious and parasitic diseases. From the information gathered from the health checks, a special education programme for the caring of the dogs was developed in close consultation with the community members. It was important for the programme to be owned by them and many times it was conducted by the elders and the women in the language of the community.