Stray dogs in perspective

The growing stray dog problem calls for greater co-operation between municipalities, animal welfare groups and farmers before it escalates out of control.

Stray dogs in perspective
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Across the country, losses caused to livestock and small game by a growing population of stray dogs around rural towns is driving farmers to despair. Problem dogs are more difficult to control than black-backed jackal and caracal because their attacks are impossible to predict. And by the time the damage is discovered, they have moved on elsewhere. Moreover, they attack indiscriminately, mauling adult and young animals, and leaving pregnant ewes dead or so badly wounded they have to be euthanised.

Stray dogs can also spread rabies and distemper among canine species such as the threatened African wild dog and the farmer-friendly bat-eared fox. In addition, they can carry a host of zoonotic diseases, from intestinal worms and ringworm to diarrhoea and tick-borne diseases.Free-roaming dogs have been described as those that belong to owners that either don’t have the ability to confine them or are unwilling to do so.

But as every farmer knows, a pair of dogs, even if trained and from good homes, can spell serious trouble on a stock farm if left to wander. Shooting dogs, even when they are actively predating, can have legal or political ramifications. Farming associations regularly call for the re-introduction of dog taxes to curb the number of dogs per owner. Dog taxation is no longer a functional system, although municipalities still have by-laws aimed at regulating the keeping of animals in residential areas.

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It is now mostly left to hard-pressed welfare inspectors to police them, with private vets doing what they can to assist in emergencies. According to Christene Kuch, spokesperson for the National Council of SPCAs, the dog licensing system fell apart because of viability and the cost of collections. “Basically, some owners paid, some didn’t and the overheads involved soon became disproportional to the income generated. Added to that was the fact that in most areas the collection fee was simply put into the general coffers and not used directly for the upliftment of animals.

“Also, rural areas, where the problem is at its worst, are more difficult places to implement a tax system. We prefer solutions such as sterilisation, which prevents litter after litter and eventually reduces populations of roaming dogs,” she says. Meanwhile, thousands of unwanted dogs and cats are euthanised every year. A single bitch and her offspring can produce 67 000 dogs in six years. A male dog can fertilise more bitches in one year than a bitch can have litters in her lifetime.

Exercising the by-laws
Louise Kilian, a volunteer animal welfare inspector who operates from Steytlerville in the Eastern Cape, notes that some municipalities implement their animal by-laws quite successfully. “They keep records of owners and pets and remove unregistered animals. Where dog licensing is still done, the cost of the first two animals is kept affordable, but additional animals are heavily penalised. The money generated should be used strictly for an integrated animal management programme.

“Unfortunately, policing the maltreatment of animals is also neglected, with courts even throwing out animal cruelty cases. And there’s the argument that dog taxes deprive needy and homeless people of the right to own a pet. But then surely such an animal must have the right to be properly cared for?”

Kilian stresses the importance of municipalities providing welfare organisations with funds to sterilise animals and inoculate them against diseases such as Parvo and distemper. “This means that pets live longer and don’t have to be replaced so often. Simply sterilising dogs without preventing them from contracting a fatal disease is a waste of money and obviously stimulates the market for puppies,” she says.

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Kilian points out that the by-laws apply to farmers as well – in general they need to exercise more control over the offspring of their own dogs and those of their staff. Puppies from farms often end up in townships where they perpetuate the problem of roaming dogs.

According to Kilian, a relatively new problem has arisen in which ineffective Anatolian livestock guardian dogs are taken to welfare kennels after being abandoned or given away by farmers. The new owners in town soon find they cannot feed such big dogs properly. She contends that much of the predicament has to do with education. Poor people love their pets as much as anyone else does but too often do not know how to care for them. And pet owners often believe that it’s morally wrong to spay a dog before she has given birth to at least one litter.

The importance of clinics
Marge Willmore, an independent animal inspector based in George, Western Cape, stresses that the root of the problem lies in the indiscriminate and uncontrolled breeding of dogs. “In my work with the Karoo Animal Protection Society (Kaps) I have found poor households breeding puppies for extra income, even though they sell them quite cheaply. The puppies are bought mainly for their cuteness, but soon become a liability as they grow and exercise their natural wandering instinct. When yards are not properly fenced, it’s impossible to keep the dogs in without tying them up,” she says.

But she points out that it’s not only a poor community issue: even owners who can afford to pay for vaccinating, spaying or neutering their young dogs prefer to give them away rather than going to the expense of paying their vet bills (see box).
The solution, according to Willmore, is clear. Local town councils will have to put the problem in perspective and make money available to re-introduce sterilisation clinics in problem areas, and then keep them running effectively. If this does not happen, the number of problem dog packs will grow.

Email Louise Killian at [email protected].