Dog facial recognition now a tool in rabies vaccination efforts in Tanzania

In collaboration with the PiP My Pet Technologies (PiP) based in Vancouver, Canada, we are developing the world’s first facial recognition cellphone application to be used to identify dogs that have been vaccinated for rabies to assess vaccination coverage in rural areas in Tanzania. While the technology has been used in countries such as the United States and Canada to identify pets, this will be first time the technology will be used in rabies endemic settings where dogs are commonly mixed breeds.

Currently, there are no cheap and accurate methods to accurately identify domestic animals, and this is a major barrier to zoonotic disease control programs in countries with limited resources.

Existing technologies are either:

  • Unreliable – for example ear-tagging and collars which can be removed or placed on other animals
  • Not sufficiently sensitive and specific – for example, owner identification or certification
  • Too expensive – for example microchips

This inability to identify domestic animals accurately and cheaply can impact program planning. Programs focusing on mass vaccination of domestic dogs to protect communities from canine-mediated human rabies are unable to accurately quantify vaccination coverage, and as a result identify areas of high disease transmission risk, with clear impacts on strategic planning.

To test the application, our vaccination team will vaccinate dogs in six target villages and vaccinators will use the cellphone application to get a photograph of the face of each dog and collect details such as sex, color, and presence of scars. Each dog will also be microchipped. After vaccination activities have been completed, a second research team will return to each target village to see if they can determine using the facial recognition technology which dogs have been vaccinated and which have not.

So how does facial recognition technology work? Well, it uses an algorithm that can match animal faces using photographs. In addition to the image data, the algorithm uses the biometric data entered for each dog as filters to enhance accuracy. The facial recognition engine selects the five closest “matches” that the operator must examine to determine whether a true match has been found. The experience of the company that produced the technology suggests this will be done with a high degree of accuracy.

Scooby, a shepherd mix, is being photographed using a cellphone with the app on it.

If it works well, facial recognition can be used as a means of identifying dogs in human rabies endemic countries where mass dog vaccination efforts are being scaled up by national governments to meet the WHO “Zero by 30” commitment of global elimination of human rabies.