Monday, February 18, 2013

Why don't you just get a dog in America?

I get this question in one form or another from a lot of people back home, maybe not even about getting another dog, just why in general.
The life of a village dog is not pleasant but some are better at it than others.  Some village dogs honestly don’t do well indoors.  I don’t know if it’s due to poor training from the PCVs or genetics, probably both. They haven’t had any breeding, nothing to promote highly trainable dogs.  Thank about how many different breeds we have and how diverse they are, everything they were bred to do. There was an issue of National Geographic that had an article about dogs and all the different varieties. The best part was the pull out spread with dozens of different breeds. I showed it to my neighbors, first words?  “ah, this one (the French Bulldog) is very ferocious.” Me- “that one is maybe this big” Their eyes got big.  They don’t understand how a dog can be anything more than something that lives on the outskirts of life.
 And I’ve seen that, some dogs here are much much better in the village.  And you don’t understand that until you see it. They are pretty wild, some of them. My dog however.  My neighbors really like her a lot and I know they want to have her, they’ve said it many times. Actually a lot of people have, someone will see her and say how she looks very good, very fat, and ask if they can have her or buy her. There is no acknowledgement that her looking so nice is because I feed her or that she is so friendly because I don’t treat her badly.
She is special, she kept me sane for two years, and has been a big part of my life. I could try and find another PCV who loves dogs but you know what, I love dogs.  I love my dog and I don’t want to give up my dog.  I don’t want her to go from being fed regularly to scrounging for leftovers, fighting among the other dogs and having multiple litters of puppies, each more draining than the last. 
I don’t want that and I have the power to change it, apathy is a pretty poor reason to just stand aside and do nothing.  The magic number for a puppy here seems to be 8. If they can make it out of 8 weeks that means the mother had enough food to feed them and get them to weaning.  The next big one, and maybe the hardest is 8 months.  They don’t have mom anymore, they have gone to someone else’s house and are on their own.  When I say ‘on their own’ I really mean it.  Very few people leave water out for their animals, dogs, cats, chickens, or goats, they are expected to survive on their own. Food is precious, a puppy might get some left over nsima (boiled corn flour) or a bone here and there.  I see a lot of pups growing very slowly or with bowed legs because they just don’t get enough protein.  This is also the age range where they have to contend with most diseases, other dogs spread distemper, rabies and parvo all over the place, puppies don’t have high survival rates of these diseases.  If they can get through 8 months then they usually survive to adulthood.
Tiger, Dora’s mother has had probably 15 puppies since I came here, I know of two that are still alive, maybe 3. 
Dora got lucky, she found me, I took her in and helped get her over her bout with distemper, it would have killed her.  Call is bring a softie, messing with natural selection, whatever. I stepped in and we have each other now and I’m not leaving her behind.  

International Travel with a Dog

It seems like every time I mention that I’m bringing my dog back to America the first thing I hear is “But it costs thousands of dollars and you have to go through quarantine!” And you know what, none of those people have actually shipped a dog from one country to another.  I’ve hear it called the Bike Shed phenomenon, tell someone you are building a nuclear reactor and no one will give you any advice because it seems so big and massive that why would you give any input? But if you tell someone you’re building a bike shed, everyone will come at you with advice from how to build the roof to what color it should be because it seems like it is within their scope.  Still haven’t done it, but sure why not, I know all about it, I heard someone talk about it once.

Same thing, never shipped so much as a cockatiel but they know how to get a dog from Malawi to America.  But I digress.

So far prepping to leave has consisted of getting things in order. Probably the biggest thing to line up is the kennel.  You have to have a crate to ship the dog in and you have to meet certain requirements, it can’t be so small that they can’t turn around and comfortably lie down in. You also have to include a food and water dish that attach to the door.  You also need some kind of absorbent bedding to go in the bottom, they recommend shredded newspaper.  On the outside of the kennel you need to have Live Animal stickers and an owner information tag. The kennel is a big part.

I was going to have a typical plastic crate brought up from South Africa when some friends of mine went down but that fell through, on to plan B.  Plan B consists of having a wooden kennel made here in Malawi. So far that one seems to be working out ok, there is a carpenter in Lilongwe who I placed an order with and hopefully in the next few weeks it will be finished and then I can get it home to start getting Dora used to it. As for the dishes, and other stuff I got kinda lucky, I was going to try and pull all that together here but my sitemate is going home for a couple weeks and said he’d bring some things back.  So I ordered a basic pet airline kit from this website I also ordered a couple of super absorbant liners for the bottom of the kennel I’m really happy I was able to get these and expect a review in the future on how they all work out, especially the kennel liners.

So that brings us to vaccinations.  Dora had a trip to Lilongwe back in November  to get her rabies vaccine along with Distemper and Parvo Virus.  My understanding is that the only one you need to have to get into the States is rabies.  I have seen too many dogs die from parvo and distemper to not get the vaccine.  If your dog gets seriously sick there is really nothing you can do if you don’t live close to one of the major cities where the good vets are. The rabies vaccine she got was Rabisin and according to the manufacturer they need a booster 4 weeks to 6 months after the initial immunization. Fortunately the vet here in my Nkhotakota actually has Rabisin so before March she is getting her final booster, it needs to be given at least 30 days prior to leaving.  I don’t fly out until April 15th so that gives me about a month to get it done. Plenty of time. There is no quarantine for dogs coming out of Malawi, as long as they’re declared healthy and have their vaccinations there really isn’t anything they could bring with them.  

Now onto the actual flight which isn’t as complicated as you might think. As soon as I bought my ticket home I got a hold of the airlines and told them that I’m traveling with a dog, United was really simple to deal with, they have a form you fill out on line and there you go, easy peasy.  Ethiopean Airlines is a bit more complicated.  I have to go to the office in Lilongwe to let them know there is a dog traveling with me and to give them the measurements of the crate and pay for it, this however I have to do closer to when I leave.

So in terms of cold hard cash, just how much does it cost to bring a dog to America? Well right now I can’t give you a solid number, obviously because I’m not back yet but so far for the vaccines it has been about $20 and having the crate made is roughly $130.  Costs to come are the paperwork from the Department of Agriculture, a final vet check up and the price for shipping on two separate airlines.

We’re in the last 8 weeks here people, it’s crunch time. I hope to be keeping up with the blog better as we go through leaving and expect a grand total when I’m done.  Thousands? No, hundreds? Yeah.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Fleas and ticks, oh how we hate them. They cling to our pets and make their lives miserable.  Heaven help us if they move in the house, then we get bit or you have them living in the carpet or attacking indoor pets.  However, their initial infestation is easily thwarted, we have whole isles inside entire stores dedicated to exactly this purpose.  So many different brands, Frontline, BioSpot, so many different methods, powder, collars, drops, and sprays.  All in a convenient package with nice neat directions in correct English with proper grammar. For big dogs, small dogs, old dogs, young dogs, red dog, blue dog, go dog go! (hee hee)

Here we don’t have near that selection, I wish we did though.  None of the adult dogs in the villages are treated for pests so that means from the time you get your little 8 week old puppy you engaged in a war against staggering odds.  Every single dog, a walking parasite factory, is more than willing to allow the bloodsucking terrorists access to their canine brethren.  When I first saw Dora she and her siblings were living in a shallow depression in the ground near Benson’s house.  They were about 3 days old and already had fleas on them.  One of the best things you can do to stop a flea infestation is to not let them get established in the environment…fail. Past that the best thing would have been to treat the mother who would have been introducing the fleas to the puppies….double fail. 

When they got older and began tottering around my house I started treating them individually for fleas & ticks. No one in Nkhotakota sells flea & tick treatment though, the next best thing? Sevin dust.  For those of you who do any gardening you’ll recognize it as the stuff you put on plants to kill bugs, it’s pretty toxic. Yes, I put it on the puppies.  A little light dusting and no more bugs.  It wasn’t a regular thing, I’d only use it if they got really really bad to the point where the dogs may have started causing damage from all the scratching. Once I finally got to Lilongwe I was able to buy some medicated shampoo and a flea & tick collar.  Also, my best friend on the planet Megan (, ya’ll should check it out) has sent me stuff for Dora and Squiggles over the past year and a half and that helps a lot. 

Right now the ticks aren’t so bad, they need more moisture for the eggs to survive so they kick up in a few months here when the rains come around.  When that does happen it is my least favorite time of year.  Last time, I had been gone for a few weeks and the ticks got Dora bad.  I reached down to pet her and it felt like I was running my hand over a pile of grapes there were so many bloated ticks on her, urgh. I treated her for them and they all fell off over night and crawled in the house under the door and died on the floor.  I must have swept 50 of them out, gross gross gross gross. This year I plan on stocking up and never running out.  I refuse to go through that again. Once is enough. 

The ticks here are also sneakier than in the States, by sneakier I guess I just mean smaller.  We have ticks that are a normal tick size but then there are ticks that once bloated are only about as big as the head of a pin.  Those ones I didn’t notice for a long time, I was brushing Dora and saw some tiny little specks that had been brushed off walking on the ground.  Because they’re smaller it’s easier to think you’re dog doesn’t have ticks when they could have a full blown infestation going on. 

Another thing that comes out a bit more while it’s moister is the bot fly.  They lay eggs where it’s moist and when something brushes against them they eggs attach, hatch and burrow under the skin and live there with a small opening to breathe through. Dora picked these up last year too.  What really gives them away is the dog constantly licking or biting at spots on their body. When you look at them it just looks like a swollen wound that never closed.  I spent quite a while looking for all those things and squeezing them out.  They aged at different rates, making me think she got into multiple batches of eggs for it took several days before they were all big enough to get out. Gross gross gross gross gross.    

If you live in America and regularly treat your dog, odds are you will never face any kind of full blown infection like I have with my dog. Cherish that fact.

Along with external parasites are internal parasites.  You know what I mean, round worm, whip worm, heart worm, flat worm and on and on. Does Dora have worms? Probably.  I have some diatomaceous earth but I mostly use that for the cat.  I know he has worms, bad, he eats all kinds of live things and gets worms.  Dora will have to be de-wormed by a vet before we leave Malawi so don’t worry about that, I’m not bringing any African killer worm back to the States. Just, again, be thankful you live in a developed country where these things aren’t such a big deal and it’s easier to treat.

I think that is probably the biggest thing really keeping me from treating her 100% like an American dog.  I know other PCVs who have let their pets sleep in their beds and had massive flea problems, I don’t want that so Dora sleeps on her little blankie.  Stupid bugs.   

Thursday, August 9, 2012

From the floor to your bowl (feeding in Africa)

When was the last time you bought dog food? For many people out there it can be answered with the date of the last time you were in a pet store, grocery store etc. 

All you raws foodies out there are laughing and I can hear it, so your question is when was the last time you stocked up the freezer with chicken quarters, raw meaty bones or, oh, I dunno, a dead llama (you know who you are).

Think about the lable on that bag of dog food, it is a cornucopia of carefully researched, meticuously labled bliss.  Wanna know how much protein? It's there. Is corn included? Check the ingredients. And so on and so on, you can find out anything about what they put in that stuff. 
The raw folks, how much time do you spend thinking about how much meat:bone ratio is going in your dog's mouth? How many poopies do you look at and think, "let me run this one by that message board, they'll have some ideas on what causes THAT." Raw foodies are very dedicated folks and pet people as a whole probably put more thought on what the average puppy eats than they do.

We have whole stores dedicated to the feeding and well being of our pets, accuse someone of being a bad 'parent' to their 'fur baby' and watch out, we get a little touchy about that stuff.

Man I miss it.  Dog food here is basically 2 options, you can either buy dog food in Lilongwe or another large city or get nsima and usipa to feed your dog.

But lets start with the nsima, what is nsima? Basically just boiled corn flour.  Boiled until it forms something like a dough and then you use it to pick up bits of greens or meat (if you're lucky). For a broke Peace Corps volunteer it's not a bad option for dog food, cheap and easy to make and the dogs love it.  My dog and cat fight over it. Now for usipa, usipa is a bit more nutrious, actually quite a bit more.  Imagine going to PetSmart and buying a few dozen little goldfish, now go dry them in the sun, tah-dah! Usipa...basically. Uspia is a fish in Lake Malawi, small and long, they are pretty oily and have a very very strong taste, personally i don't like them but the Malawians love them. I live on the lake shore area so usipa is alipo (around here). So that makes up the diet for many Peace Corps dogs, corn flour and dried fish.

What? What's that sound? Okay, okay, someone get the raw fooders to put down their spears whilst I explain.

The dogs who get to eat like that are super super lucky. I know it clashes with everything current in dog feeding trends, corn is personna non grata. Think about it though, as I said in my first post the local dogs here are not well kept or fed.  They are feral, scroungers, you should see the food aggression here. So as far as these dogs are concerned they have hit the jackpot, and rightly so.

Onto feeding option number two, processed dog food.  Remember those nice pretty, well labled bags we saw in the pet store a few paragraphs back? Yeah....this aint that.

To be fair there is labeling but by American standards it's just laughable.

Beacuse the internet here is not always condusive to loading pictures I'll just tell you what the ingredients on the cheapest brand, yes the very same brand I feed Dora, has in it.
Maize, meat and bone meal (20% min), sunflower 7%, fish meal 3% and minerals.

Maize, ok I know what is, meat and bone meal, well we assume that was once living, sunflower...sunflower what??? stalks? seeds? oil? husks? leaves? Fish meal, fair enough i guess, minerals, pretty ambiguous but whatever.

The Nutritional analysis panel is even better:
Crude Protein 18.5% (oh I believe you, it's crude)
Moisture 9% max
Crude oils and fats 6% min
Crude fiber 4.5% max
Crude ash 8% max (what???)
Calcium 0.9% min
Phosphorus 0.7% min

Now I know some of you back home are already picking this apart and believe me it's very very tempting and if this were sold in America I wouldn't feed it to a parakeet but again, this is outrageously nutritious for a village dog. I even have a bit of an experiment to back it up. Another PCV got a puppy from a litter that was born near my house, this dogs gets sweet potatoes and nsima, left overs, whatever. His sister, who was at my house for a few more weeks, got a couple of handfuls of this twice a day.  When we got them together after a few weeks she was almost twice his size! Little things make all the difference.

But now lets see how an imported dog food stacks up. I bought this dog food after I ran out and it was the only thing I could get my hands on, it was more expensive too.  She better be loving it.
Ingredients: Cereals (what? like cinnamon toast crunch?), meat & animal derivatives (probably the panda bears who can't figure out how to reproduce), derivatives of vegetable origin (how does this even work? Isn't a carrot just a carrot? How can you have a 'derivative' of that?), fats and oils, vitamins  & minerals, flavourants and approved antioxidants (how can I trust a dog food that spells 'flavor' with a 'u'?

Nutrition panel
This sucker was weird, the guaranteed analysis is done in g/kg
 Protein 180 min
Moisture 100 max
Fat 60 min
Fibre 50 max
Ash 90 (Again with the ash, anyone know what this is in American?)
Calcium 14
Phosphorus 11
Calcium/Phosphorus ratio 1.1-1.5:1.0

I like the Ca/P ratio on this one, no idea what the other brand is. 

But this by no means all they eat, Dora's other favorite foods are avocado, papaya and mango, when they're in season of course, can't get mango in June here.  Sometimes it's even a raw egg if I was a clutz getting home and one broke in the bag.  Yesterday Dora and the cat, Squiggles, each got a fish skeleton, complete with guts and head after I took the filets off for me.  

Not only do they do well on this diet they do darn well, she has a nice coat, good weight and condition.

And it's funny, I always looked at ingredients in the States and thought, "how does that make sense, where would a dog get avocado, or carrots, etc?) You know what, my dog loves tropical fruit.  Don't discount anything, dogs are good at getting food when and where they can.  And it's not like they eat it 24/7, mangos are only here from November through maybe early January in my area, and they only get avocados when I buy them.  I scrape off any bad parts and let the dog and cat figure out who gets it. I think papaya might be a form of self medicating, ever since she was a puppy she likes to eat the peel, papaya is an ingredient in many natural dewormers. She has had some pretty rank stuff too, I've seen her eat poop, and seen her poop out a 3ft long piece of fabric.  Don't know how that didn't get impacted. Once she even had hippo meat when the office of Parks and Wildlife gave me a few pounds after they had to put one down.

We stress a lot about dog food in the states, and that's ok. I know a lot of dogs have allergies and need a special diet, some dogs who have coats that would get better if corn wasn't in their diet, and on and on. But maybe we created the problems to begin with.  If you keep breeding for such a specialized function then maybe you lose some of the hardiness of the digestive system.  We aren't selecting for survival, we're selecting for things we like and get a bunch of problems to go with it, hip displaysia ring a bell anyone? There has been virtually no selection for a solid digestive tract in the western world.  Here, a dog with a delicate constitution would not survive.  Bloat in great danes, yeah, there is a reason neither one exist here.

Am I saying we should all be breeding for little garbage disposals on four legs? Not really, just food for thought is all, no pun intended.  One of the things about living in the western world is that we can afford (literally, and mentally) to put so much time and effort into feeding out pets that it is kind of hard to picture now after living in a country that actually has a time of year called a 'hunger season'. 
Once back in the States I kind of want to play with Dora's food for a bit, quality dog food, maybe raw when I can afford it, but I do plan on leaving in seasonal fruits, her 'breed' is, from my observations, adaped to eating them and they've got vitamins.  Besides, who doesn't love a good mango?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What is a 'Village Dog'?

I think when I say I have a village a lot of people back home picture a mutt or a stray, or they don’t know what to picture. Isn’t it just a dog that lives in a village?

Fair enough, but where did it come from? Where did this village dwelling creature originate? Does it even matter?

For me at least I had pictured dogs from the colonial era that escaped and just started breeding out in the bush.  You know, kind of like the American Mustang.  Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. 

Do any of you have a subscription to National Geographic? Good, grab the issue from February of this year, the one with all the tons of pictures of dogs in it.  Now flip to the very end of that article and read the one page bit about village dogs.  Cool huh?

For those of you who don’t have National Geographic let me paraphrase for you.  A couple of folks came and ran DNA tests on different village dogs in Ghana. They found that the dogs were as closely related to domestic dogs as to wolves.  What exactly does that mean? It means they are kind of their own thing, not really domestic, not really wild, they have been getting by on the edges of civilization for millennia. They are perfectly adapted for this way of life.  Honed for centuries into the village dog and you can tell it too.

They differ from domestic dogs in a few ways.  Probably the most obvious is coat colors. Domestic dogs are full of diversity, black labs, harlequin great danes, aussie shepherds, brindle, etc, we live in a world of color there. Here things tend to range between tan and dark brown.  Every now and then you might see something a little different but tan is really really common. Makes sense, good for camouflage and doesn’t stand out too much.  Some dogs even have that trademark ridge you see on the Rhodesian ridgeback and some take that to the extreme.  Instead of having the two swirls that make the ridge, her mother has 4, a massive patch of crazy hair on her back.

Body type is very even, perfect for moving, nothing like a weiner dog or a corgie.  Most dogs are about 24-28” tall from the top of their heads.  Tails are usually long and straight, sometimes curly.

A lot of dog breeds you can point to them and say, “this dog was bred to do this…”

Like a greyhound is a runner, a mastiff is a guardian, a Chihuahua…well you get the idea. The village dog is the perfect all around dog. Everything about them says this dog is a generalist, a survivor. 

I have seen the dogs here live through things that by all means should have killed them.  Dora fell in the chim for two days and had canine distemper at 6 weeks old, her father regularly kills monkeys and comes out with cuts that should get outrageously infected and kill him, the female dogs here are walking skeletons when they have puppies and yet the keep going.  They are amazing.  I am constantly impressed by their immune systems. Dora might just outlive me.

So in a word, what is a village dog?


Dog Gone Wild

I love dogs.  I have always loved dogs, when I was little we would practically steal stray dogs and try and keep them. I have always had animals, they are a pretty big part of my life, always have been always will be. Not having a dog seemed strange.  Stranger still was the moment when I decided to not get one. When I first came to Africa in February of 2011 I decided it would be best to not get a dog.  Everything I heard from other Peace Corps volunteers confirmed those thoughts, “they are expensive to feed, Malawians don’t get it, people will abuse it, it makes it harder to get away from your site, they can get pregnant, you’re only here for 2 years, what are you going to do with it when it is time for you to go back to America” and on and on.  Thus, I came to the conclusion that I did not want a dog, in this case it really did sound like more trouble than it was worth.
However, like so many animal people, it doesn’t matter what you plan for, they seem to find you no matter where you go or what you do. Enter, my dog, Dora.     

Late July of 2011 my neighbor Benson’s dog, Tiger, gave birth…again.  One of the things about Malawi, if it can be pregnant it either is pregnant, will be pregnant or just got done being pregnant.  There were 5 puppies in the litter, the usual mix, girls and boys.  I had been on the lookout for a couple of male puppies for another PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer, try and keep up with the acronyms) and wouldn’t you know it there were two males here! So once they were a few weeks older I started bringing them over to my house a couple times a week to give them a little extra food, socialize them, keep them hydrated, you know basic stuff that in America would be a no brainer, not here, they need extra attention here.

Pretty soon, their little sister began tottering over to my house with her brothers.  Early on she seemed ok, kinda runty but cute, she had a ridge of hair going the opposite direction up her spine (like a Rhodesian ridgeback) however a couple weeks in she started getting weird.  A couple calls later and we had a diagnosis, canine distemper virus (CDV).  At 6 weeks old she had CDV, my heart dropped, this kills most dogs that it infects and we vaccinate for it like crazy back home, many dogs that do survive it have residual nerve damage their entire lives.  I was worried but I decided that if she was willing to give it a shot then, by golly, I’d help her fight it if I could. 

Being in the middle of rural Africa, that didn’t mean a whole lot.  Everything I could do basically turned into giving her oral rehydration solution (ORS) and food, and since it’s a virus, that’s really all you could do in America. Wouldn’t you know it though, she kept going.  The nerve damage stuck around though.  Her balance was really really bad for a very long time and she couldn’t control her bladder at all.  Through all of this my neighbors kept insisting that she was my dog, I kept saying no, I was just helping her until I could find a home for her.  And I did mean to, I was going to find her a home.  Then I had my epiphany, that came in form of another puppy at a neighbor’s house.  Couldn’t have been more than a couple months old, dehydrated, sick, hungry, covered in fleas and ticks.  I started second guessing giving my puppy away, with her disabilities what kind of a shot did she have? The answer came in mid September when I had to leave for two weeks for a training in Dedza, a town in south central Malawi.   

When I got back I saw the puppy stumbling around my neighbor’s yard looking, if it was possible, worse than when I left. I asked what happened and why on earth was she so filthy? Apparently she fell down their chimbudzi or, pit latrine toilet, for two days! What?! Imagine, this little thing, barely over her CDV, still suffering massive nerve damage, picture walking into trees and chairs and falling off steps, fell in a toilet!! Actually if she was going to fall in a chim this would have been the one to do it.  they knew I like her and actually got her out with some rope.  I think a lot of people here would have left her. 

Poor kiddo, she was a mess, really dehydrated, and had picked up a bad stomach bug down there.  So I got her home, washed her off, got some more ORS down her, some cooked rice and some antibiotics from my medical kit.  I sat down and came to the conclusion that , yes, the villagers were right, she was my dog. I named her Dora, after another famous explorer.

So what is the point of this, why have two blogs about living in Africa (the other one is ) well, the way I see it I can explore the weirdness of having a dog here and just talk to dog people.  Believe it or not, not everyone cares about that.  I figure some people do so we’ll chat for a bit. So if you have questions about dogs in Africa, my dog, or anything else, feel free, ask away!