Dog care needed to aid Indigenous scabies problem

Quality veterinary care for dogs in Indigenous communities is necessary to improve human health. This includes control of dog scabies which may have direct and flow-on effects on human health.

Dr Rosalie Schultz, from Flinders University’s Centre for Remote Health in Alice Springs, voiced her concerns on this issue in a letter published in the April 15 edition of the Medical Journal of Australia. In it, Dr Schultz says that while the recent publication of healthy skin guidelines for Indigenous Australians is welcome, further work is needed – particularly to reduce the impact of scabies.

“Scabies programs have achieved reductions in the prevalence of scabies in remote Indigenous communities but, in every case, scabies was eventually reintroduced,” says Dr Schultz.

The guidelines used a systematic literature review, but the work on scabies was limited to human scabies. Studies of dog scabies were not considered, because dog scabies are genetically different from human scabies, and infestations cannot spread between people. However, dog scabies can infest people and cause intense itch, especially on parts of the body in contact with dogs.

A problem exists because dogs are like family members in some Indigenous communities, sharing their owners’ housing, bedding and food; hence, human and dog health and wellbeing are intimately linked.

As with human scabies, the intense itch from dog scabies makes people scratch, and this can break the skin. Broken skin can provide an entry point for bacterial infection, which can cause complications including kidney disease and rheumatic heart disease.

Outbreaks of dog scabies in humans can be caused by repeated infestations, even though each scabies infestation is short-lived. People affected by dog scabies should be treated, together with their dogs and dog contacts.

No formal trials have examined the impact of dog health programs on human health in Indigenous communities. This is despite many known benefits including less dog attacks, better community and workplace safety, less sleep disturbance from barking and fighting dogs, and that dogs will look, behave and feel better.

Dr Schultz says it is now necessary to conduct trials of dog health programs in Indigenous communities to help support the healthy skin guidelines being more successful. “Without evidence from trials, the impact, or lack thereof, of dog health programs on human health is speculative,” says Dr Schultz.

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College of Medicine and Public Health