Significant change happens slowly, but when it's change for the better, it's always heartening to witness. I've been working as a vet in Ireland for twenty five years now, and there is one area in particular where the change has been visible and dramatic. I'm talking about the issue of unwanted dogs.
When I started working as a vet here, I was astonished to discover how many stray dogs were killed in Ireland's dog pounds. The figure was almost thirty thousand every year. That's over a hundred dogs on every working day. This is shockingly high: to put it into context, in the UK, which had around twenty times the human population of Ireland, less than ten thousand dogs were being killed per year.
It was obvious that there was a big problem in this country, and because it was happening behind closed doors, few people realised that it was going on.
The people who did know about it felt incensed, but didn't know what they could do to help. In the end, the solution was started by one of the Local Authority vets who worked on the front line, actually injecting the dogs to put them down. He found it intolerable, so he decided to do something about it. Through the veterinary organisations, he set up a meeting, calling it the National Stray Dog Forum. This was an informal gathering of all interested parties who were concerned about the stray dog problem.
As well as veterinary organisations, there were animal rescue groups, local authority representatives, and other groups like the Gardai and politicians. Everyone agreed that the situation for dogs needed to be addressed, and an action list was drawn up to try to change things.
It's interesting to look at that action list now, to see what has been achieved.
1. Responsible pet ownership was to be encouraged. This was a very broad aim, and some might even call it "waffly". But the truth is that strong efforts have been made to spread the word about the importance of looking after pets properly. The annual spay/neuter awareness week (www.spayaware.ie) has taken place every year since 2001, and this has helped to persuade more people to have their dogs and cats spayed and neutered, having a direct effect on reducing the number of unwanted dogs and cats being born.
At the same time, a nationwide subsidised neutering scheme for dogs was set up by the Dogs Trust charity, and this gave people a financial incentive to be responsible owners. Finally, the new Animal Health and Welfare Act was introduced in 2013, specifying the responsibilities that pet owners have to look after animals in their care.
2. There were a number of issues for local authorities, including the day to day running of dog pounds. Since then, there have been many changes, and dog pounds now work closely with local animal rescue groups to rehome dogs that would formerly have been euthanased. Dog pounds will always face challenges, but the changes to date are welcome, and they've already made a big difference.
3. Microchipping was to be made compulsory. It was recognised that compulsory microchipping of dogs would have a significant impact on the stray dog problem. It took a while for this to be put in place, but since April 2016, every dog in Ireland has had to be microchipped and registered.
4. The dog licence system was to be reviewed. While changes have been made, there are still many issues with how dog licences work in this country, with less than half of dog owners complying with the law. Wise government action is still needed to deal with this.
5. Regulation of puppy farms was to be addressed. Again, new legislation was introduced, with the Dog Breeding Establishment Act 2010. While this is not perfect and does need to be reviewed, it was a step in the right direction. There are misunderstandings here: some people believe that it ought to be possible to farm dogs in the same way as other livestock can be farmed. If you can keep a shed full of sheep or cattle, why not dogs? If you can produce hundreds of lambs or calves to sell, why not puppies? The truth is that there is a huge difference.
Farm animals are produced to be killed and eaten. Dogs are produced to become family members in a human household. To do this successfully, they need to be well socialised from an early age, and if they are kept in barn like conditions with minimal human contact, this cannot happen. The puppy buying public needs to be protected by legislation that ensures that puppies are reared in a way that makes them fit for living in modern homes.
So, given that the action list has been largely completed, what has happened to the numbers of dogs being killed in Irish dog pounds?There is good news here: in the 1990's between 25 and 30000 dogs were killed every year. The most recent figure - for 2014 - showed that less than 3000 dogs were killed: that's a drop of 90%. It's still too many: other countries with similar populations euthanase less than 1000 per year, and that should be our target.
Those involved with animal welfare continue to work to improve life for Ireland's dogs, and we can all play a role. For starters, is your own dog spayed or neutered?
For more, see www.spayaware.ie.