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Madagascar group aims to protect wildlife from stray cats & dogs

  • In the biodiverse forests of Madagascar, stray cats and dogs pose threats to wildlife by hunting and harassing wild animals or transmitting diseases to them.
  • The Mad Dog Initiative, an American NGO, runs annual sterilization and rabies vaccination campaigns to reduce the strays’ impact.
  • However, it will take more time to achieve measurable impacts on wildlife, the group’s leaders say, and raising awareness among villagers and overcoming “fadys,” or Malagasy taboos, remains a challenge.

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — Camera trap footage from national parks in Madagascar shows dogs roaming the forest either in bands or with their owners, barking at the base of trees where the country’s iconic lemurs are nesting. The cameras caught cats, which tend to be more solitary, with lemurs and snakes in their mouths.

The footage, gathered by The Mad Dog Initiative (MDI), an American NGO, shows how cats and dogs from nearby villages negatively affect native wildlife in Malagasy forests. In an effort to reduce the populations of these exotic carnivores and the diseases they transmit in protected areas, MDI sterilizes dogs and cats and administers rabies vaccines — an unusual approach to conservation in Madagascar.

“Dogs don’t seem to do many things to the animals directly,” Zachary Farris, co-founder of MDI and carnivore ecologist at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, U.S., told Mongabay. “A lot of their impact is indirect through harassment, stress or spreading diseases. … Cats are different. They are having a much larger direct impact.”

According to Farris, the problem is widespread in Madagascar.

MDI began operations in 2014. The group runs annual campaigns to sterilize and vaccinate stray cats and dogs against rabies in Ranomafana National Park (in the country’s southeast) and Andasibe-Mantadia National Park (in the east), and it conducts scientific research to assess the campaigns’ impacts. It is also involved in various social initiatives, including establishing school cafeterias for village children, developing community vegetable gardens, offering environmental education and launching a new reforestation project.

According to a 2017 study co-authored by MDI officials, the populations of native carnivores such as the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), pictured here, tend to be reduced in forest areas near villages, where stray dogs abound. Image by Rhett A. Butler.
Teddy, étudiant vétérinaire de l'Université d'Antanarivo, participe à un programme de formation vétérinaire organisé par Mad Dog Initiative.
A veterinary student from the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar, participates in a veterinary training program held by the Mad Dog Initiative. Image by Patricia Seaton.

An atypical approach

Through its “One Health” approach, MDI simultaneously addresses human, animal and environmental health in acknowledgement of their interdependence, according to Zoavina Randriana, a veterinarian and MDI’s local director.

“It may be little known to the general public, but the health of humans, domestic or wild animals, plants and our entire environment are closely linked and dependent on each other,” she told Mongabay.

According to a 2017 study written by Farris, Randriana and several co-authors, the populations of native carnivores, including fossas (Cryptoprocta ferox) and mongoose-like ring-tailed vontsiras (Galidia elegans), tend to be reduced in forest edges, where people and stray dogs abound. While dogs generally stick to places with a human presence, cats may go more than 5 kilometers (3 miles) into the forest by themselves, reaching its core.

Les vétérinaires de Mad Dog Initiative (MDI), Zoavina Randriana et Tsiky Rajaonarivelo, procèdent à la stérilisation d'un chien du village d'Andasibe, à Madagascar.
Mad Dog Initiative veterinarians Zoavina Randriana (left) and Tsiky Rajaonarivelo (right) sterilizing a dog from the village of Andasibe in Madagascar. Image by Patricia Seaton.

“The MDI project is good, but we severely lack data on what dogs truly do,” Patricia Wright, founder of the Centre ValBio, a research and conservation institute based in Ranomafana, and a co-author of the study, told Mongabay. “Most is anecdotal.”

Some details emerge from MDI’s studies. Cats and dogs compete with their rare, endemic carnivore counterparts, such as the fossa. They hunt lemurs, which are endemic to Madagascar and in many cases in danger of extinction, and other animals like certain birds that spend a lot of time on the ground: for example, the blue coua (Coua caerulea). The group’s research has also shown that rufous mouse lemurs (Mirocebus rufus) have been infected with a parasite transmitted by dogs.

A stray cat and the lemur it killed are captured by a camera trap in a Madagascar forest. Image by Samuel Merson.

During the last campaign in July and August around Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, MDI sterilized about 200 cats and dogs and administered rabies vaccines to about 100. Since its founding, the NGO has performed approximately 2,200 sterilizations and administered 8,000 vaccines around the two parks.

The NGO’s analyses show that dogs in the Andasibe-Mantadia area have better immune protection against rabies following the annual vaccinations taking place since 2017. However, the NGO has not yet been able to assess the program’s impact on conservation. It could take 10-15 years to be able to observe any tangible results in wildlife, Randriana said, extrapolating from a 2020 study.

According to Randriana, communities around the parks are motivated to get their cats and dogs vaccinated and sterilized because they fear the transmission of zoonoses. Nevertheless, many challenges remain.


Persuading villagers, who are predominantly poor to take care of their animals can be difficult, especially when it comes to conservation issues, which are often unfamiliar and may not be a priority for them. Fadys, Malagasy taboos, also pose a challenge as they prevent work and even direct interaction with dogs in certain villages.

Nevertheless, MDI has a strategy for dealing with most of these challenges, by increasing its social initiatives and environmental education efforts in order to gain villagers’ support for its work.

As with all conservation efforts, for MDI to be successful, “It is essential to dialogue and maintain good relationships with villagers,” says Wright.

Banner image: A stray cat captured by a camera trap with a snake it hunted in a Madagascar forest. Image by Samuel Merson.

This article was first published here on Mongabay’s French website on Oct. 18, 2023.


Citations :

Farris, Z. J., Gerber, B. D., Valenta, K., Rafaliarison, R., Razafimahaimodison, J. C., Larney, E., … Chapman, C. A. (2017). Threats to a rainforest carnivore community: A multi-year assessment of occupancy and Co-occurrence in Madagascar. Biological Conservation, 210, 116-124. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2017.04.010

Zohdy, S., Valenta, K., Rabaoarivola, B., Karanewsky, C. J., Zaky, W., Pilotte, N., … Farris, Z. J. (2019). Causative agent of canine heartworm (Dirofilaria immitis) detected in wild lemurs. International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife, 9, 119-121. doi:10.1016/j.ijppaw.2019.04.005

Zohdy, S., Valenta, K., Rabaoarivola, B., Karanewsky, C. J., Zaky, W., Pilotte, N., … Farris, Z. J. (2019). Causative agent of canine heartworm (Dirofilaria immitis) detected in wild lemurs. International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife, 9, 119-121. doi:10.1016/j.ijppaw.2019.04.005 Belsare, A., & Vanak, A. T. (2020). Modelling the challenges of managing free-ranging dog populations. Scientific Reports, 10(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-020-75828-6

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