Tonga's dog population surges as Covid-19 restrictions keep foreign vets out of the country

While dog shelters were left empty and people in Australia had to wait months for a dog due to the surge in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tonga's main island of Tongatapu has had the opposite problem.

The closure of international borders meant foreign vets from South Pacific Animal Welfare (SPAW) couldn't run their free desexing programmes in the country — and without a qualified vet in Tonga, there are now estimated to be more than 20,000 dogs on Tongatapu alone.

Angela Glover, vice-president of the Tonga Animal Welfare Society, said the need for veterinary care has never been more urgent.

"SPAW are our vets and the last clinic [visit] was December 2019 where they did 410 desexings in five days, which is an incredible amount of dogs to start limiting the reproduction," she said.

"Due to the pandemic they haven't been able to come over for more than a year now, so the dog population is exploding."

SPAW, which is based in New Zealand, recruits volunteer veterinarians and veterinary nurses from New Zealand and around the world to deliver free services to the islands of Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Niue and Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.

SPAW would usually visit Tonga four to six times a year, and a single SPAW-run clinic is worth around $50,000 in resources and clinical supplies to that island nation.

Its lead veterinarian Geoff Neal said SPAW was due to start a concentrated desexing programme last year, named Project Kuli, which planned to desex upwards of 1,200 dogs in the western tip of Tongatapu.

"Its planned start date was the end of March 2020, right as the world went into lockdowns and borders closed," Dr Neal said.

"With the borders remaining shut, we also had to cancel all trips planned in 2020 to the other islands and the other usual clinics."

He said they hoped to restart Project Kuli when border conditions allow it.

"The 2021 programme is at this stage in pause mode until borders open, flights resume and quarantine-free travel is allowed between the islands and New Zealand — SPAW is stuck in New Zealand," Dr Neal said.

As well as running desexing programmes, Ms Glover says foreign veterinary care also includes bringing vital medications to stop sickness and illness among Tonga's animals.

This includes medication for fleas and ticks as well as for the highly contagious canine parvovirus, which can cause death if left untreated.

"We've seen so many puppies recently die of parvo, and because parvo is so highly contagious, it easily spreads across the islands of Tonga," she said.

"With no supplies in the clinic, and without anyone here who is a fully qualified vet, then it's very limited in what people can do."

Like most other organisations during the pandemic, SPAW had to rely on technology to continue providing assistance to the region, and Dr Neal said he was able to assist with a range of conditions and issues on Tonga's islands via telemedical support.

They were even able to organise for the exportation of animals out of Tonga to New Zealand and America.

"Thank goodness for the internet and phones that take pictures and videos, and for the limited freight flights from [New Zealand] to allow some supplies to reach the islands," he said.

"Unfortunately, telemedicine doesn't allow surgery to happen, and with no qualified veterinarians in the country, it's hard for people who would like hands-on veterinary care, but are severely limited in their access due to COVID-19," he said.

Ms Glover said her organisation was working with the Tongan Government to raise awareness of the need for a permanent vet in Tonga and, to educate the Tongan public on how to look after animals, including in schools.

"It's a very different community here and a lot of livestock are a necessity for the farmers, but the dogs are something that people have as security — don't get me wrong, there's lots of people who love and care for their dogs, but they're just there," she said.

"A vet was never seen as an essential priority but attitudes are changing, particularly in the last few years where we've been promoting animal welfare so much."

Through the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forest and Fisheries, the Tongan Government offers animal care in their clinic in Tokomolo for livestock.

Ms Glover, while acknowledging the competing priorities of the Government, especially in keeping the country COVID-free, wants to see more.

"In some way a permanent vet in Tonga needs to be supported by a national budget because there is a growth in people who want it and need it," she said.

"The flipside is that, anyone who wants to train in … Tonga will have to study for five to seven years to become qualified, so in the meantime there's a big gap and we need to fill that gap with either volunteers or contract vets."

The Tongan Government has been contacted for comment.


Photo courtesy SPAW