Streeties are not feral dogs


India has several different free ranging dog populations – street dogs, stray dogs, feral dogs & wild dogs. Each of these are distinctly different, but unfortunately all of these terms are used interchangeably, even in academic circles. This gets in the way of understanding these dogs and identifying solutions to issues of their welfare, human-animal conflict, public health and wildlife. With such a massive free ranging population, ignoring the distinction and using the terms interchangeably does not serve us well.


Street dogs are not wild dogs. Wild dogs are not even dogs (Cuon Alpinus) and stray dogs are ex-pet dogs, who, if not lucky enough to get rescued and rehomed, rarely have the skills to survive on the streets. Street dogs are not feral dogs either. The lack of this particular distinction, unfortunately, is what does these dogs the most damage. In fact, according to Dr. Anindita Bhadra, an associate professor of animal behavior at IISER who specializes in street dogs, “This term feral is very problematic in the Indian context. Technically, feral is an animal with an immediate past history of being domestic. By that definition, only a miniscule proportion of Indian free-ranging dogs are feral. If we are talking about free-ranging non-urban dogs, that live and sometimes hunt, in large packs, guessing from reports, it sounds like it may be as low as 5-10%”. Apart from the technicality, we are also talking about dogs that have distinctly different behaviours, which we must pay heed to, if we are to understand these animals.


This term feral is very problematic in the Indian context. If we are talking about free-ranging non-urban dogs, that live and sometimes hunt, in large packs, guessing from reports, it sounds like it may be as low as 5-10%

The key to understanding the behavior of an animal is to consider their natural history. Dogs are the only animals to have maintained such a successful free ranging population, that is not wary of humans, for more than tens of thousands of years - well before humans even started domestication. Which is why experts now believe that the dog’s story with humans is not one of human initiated domestication at the dawn of agriculture, but a story of coevolution that started several tens of thousands of years earlier[1]. And that story continues to play out with our street dogs of India. This gives us the perfect opportunity to understand the adaptations of a dog, that resulted in humans not just tolerating a predator in their midst, but also caring for them, like family.  


...the story of humans and dog is a story of coevolution that started several tens of thousands of years earlier[1]. And that story continues to play out with our street dogs of India...


While most canids are believed to be pack predator animals, studies on street dogs show that these dogs have a far more fluid and flexible social structure, preferring more to be solitary beggars or scavengers working in smaller groups. Large groups of dogs make humans nervous and it is hard to imagine humans tolerating intimidating packs of predators in their midst. [2]


These animals also have a genetic modification from that of their carnivore counterparts, that gives them the ability to digest specifically cooked carbohydrates. [3] This allow these dogs to survive scavenging off human garbage in particular – a useful adaptation for an animal living beside humans. Animals that hunt or hurt livestock would have been selected against very quickly.