Monday 19 August 2019

People still not accepting the need to have dogs spayed

I've just had first-hand experience of one of Ireland's biggest animal welfare problems: unwanted stray dogs.

On 23rd December, our vet clinic was run off its feet. Pet owners were busily trying to sort out the loose ends in their lives before the festive break, including making sure that their pets were as happy and healthy as possible.

I answered the phone to take the pressure off our receptionist. The caller had a problem on her hands: the previous evening, she had found a puppy wandering in a public area. There was no owner around, and despite calling at a number of houses in the area, she had been unable to find anyone who knew anything about the pup. What should she do?

I told her that we'd do what we could to help: we put a call out via our Facebook page to spread the word that this pup had been found. We posted a photo, and within a couple of hours, thousands of people in the area had seen it. We fully expected that the owner would be located, and they could then be reunited with their lost pup.

I also asked the lady to bring the pup in to us, so that we could scan him for a microchip: this would immediately give us the owner's name and phone number.

Unfortunately, the pup did not have a microchip, and there had still been no sign of an owner. It was now just 36 hours before Christmas Day: what on earth were we going to do with the puppy?

This is a disturbingly common problem in Ireland: as a nation, we produce far too many puppies. People have still not fully accepted the need to have dogs spayed and neutered as a matter of routine, and unplanned pregnancies are common.

Thousands of unwanted puppies are born every year. People are pressurised to take on a new puppy, but within a few days, they discover that it's a lot more work and expense than they had expected. The young dog is then abandoned to fend for itself on the streets.

There are laws in place to deal with this situation. Under The Control of Dogs Act 1986, the person who finds a dog has a legal obligation to report the animal to the local Garda station and the local dog pound. Alternatively, the local dog warden can be called, and when possible, he will collect the dog and take it to the dog pound.

The dog has to be detained (either in the pound or by the person who found the dog) for five days, to give the owners a chance to come forward to claim their animal. If they have not made contact with the dog pound after five days, they forfeit ownership of the animal, and it then becomes the property of the State or of an individual who is prepared to take on that responsibility.

This all seems reasonable enough, and in the ideal world, the system should work well: roaming dogs would be kept penned up for five days, then they'd be sent to goof new homes. There's one big 'real life' complication: there are tens of thousands of stray dogs out there. The system is overloaded with the high numbers of dogs needing to be looked after and subsequently needing homes.

In 2012, over 17500 dogs ended up in Ireland's dog pounds: that's almost fifty dogs on every day of the week. Over 13,000 of these were either claimed by owners or rehomed (often via rescue groups who work with dog pounds) but 4,500 unfortunate dogs had to be euthanased. There was a story behind each one of these dogs: some were undoubtedly dogs that would have been difficult to rehome, perhaps with aggressive behavioural issues or poor health. But many of them would have made good pets in the right home.

This figure - 4500 per year, or nearly 90 per week - is much higher than it should be. In Scotland - a country of comparable size and population to Ireland - less than 1000 dogs per year (20 per week) are euthanased. The situation has improved dramatically in Ireland over the past twenty years: in the mid-1990's, nearly 30000 dogs were euthanased annually (that's 600 every week).

The improvement has been brought about by three factors. First, animal rescues have been proactive in liaising with pounds across Ireland, rescuing dogs that would otherwise have been euthanased. Second, there has been a strong PR effort ( to spread the word about the importance of spay/neuter as a way of preventing unwanted pets, as well as often being the best answer for an individual animal's health. And third, animal welfare group Dogs Trust has spent millions of euro on subsidised spay/neuter operations for pets belonging to people who are unable to afford the operations.

But more still needs to be done: until less than 1000 dogs are euthanased in Ireland's dog pounds, everyone concerned about animal welfare needs to keep up the focus on reducing those numbers.

What can you do? Spay or neuter your own pet, and support your local dog welfare group. If everyone who cares about animals does a little, together we can achieve a lot.

By the way, the Christmas stray pup in the photo is doing fine: he was looked after in the 'puppy' section of the dog pound for five days, and he was then released to a new, caring, home. He was one of the lucky ones.

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