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MSU researchers want to figure out how many stray dogs are really roaming Detroit

Rob Swatski

It became a kind of overnight urban legend.

A couple of years ago, Detroit's "50,000 feral dogs" made national headlines, which in turn drew eye rolls from residents sick and tired of seeing their city depicted as an apocalyptic hellscape, especially when that 50,000 number was sketchy at best.

A second survey came in far lower: the World Animal Awareness Society put the number of stray dogs in Detroit closer to 3,000.

But Michigan State University researchers want an answer for themselves. 

Professor Laura Reese and her team are applying for a federal grant to survey just how many dogs are really roaming the city's streets, and then analyze the risk to people. 

"When you look at the bite data for the city of Detroit, there’s higher incidences of bites in particular neighborhoods that tend to be lower income and more vacant," says Reese.

"You need empty lots and abandoned buildings for the dogs to hide in and to live in. And there's an environmental justice issue there, because the poorer neighborhoods are probably bearing the brunt of the location of the dogs, which then increases the risk for humans."

"They’re more like deer or fox than a domesticated dog at this point," she says. "So they really don't want to be where there’s a lot of  people. So you need that vacancy, and that vacancy is generally correlated with poverty."

But even if many of the dogs are coming into direct contact with people, they could be coming into contact with pets, which Reese says can mean a greater risk for residents. 

 "Another part of the project is to talk to veterinarians that serve Detroit and see if they’re seeing an incidence of diseases that can be passed canines to canines and then canines to humans. Things like parasites, Lepto, obviously rabies, but not as many cases of rabies as there are of more common diseases."

If the funding comes in, Reese and her team hope to get started in June. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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