Greece is renowned for its stray dog population. I visited Athens (and surrounding areas) in 2013, and was struck by the amount of canines wandering around, seemingly, without an owner in site. Many of these dogs have a ‘guardian’ – a human who provides food, water and companionship, without the ties of formal home ownership.
However, not all canines have one, especially stray ones roaming around in non-Greek countries, as Greece exclusively practises a ‘catch, neuter, release’ policy. Many other European countries, such as Albania, Moldova and Ukraine, hire municipal contractors to shoot stray dogs as a method of control. This barbaric practice does little to effectively control the numbers of strays, with an extensive study of 34 animal welfare groups in 30 countries over 2006 and 2007 demonstrating that numbers of stray dogs either increased or remained constant in all countries where this practice was carried out.
This same study, carried out by World Animal Protection and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International (RSPCA International), also found that Greece’s more humane policy also had its problems. Owners, tired of their dogs, were effectively ‘dumping’ them in areas where they knew they would be picked up and looked after. This may be more humane than dropping them somewhere they’re likely to be killed, but it’s hardly the solution to solve all problems.
10 of the countries surveyed permitted euthanasia of stray dogs that had not been re-claimed or re-homed after the statutory holding period; however, this time period was wide-ranging, from as little as 3 days to as long as 60 days. All groups from countries where euthanasia was permitted stated that the practice was carried out on humane grounds if the animal was showing signs of disease or injury.
The UK is one of the countries that permits the euthanasia of stray dogs, using barbiturates, and sometimes chemical restraint or sedation. According to a survey by the Dogs Trust, the number of dogs euthanised has been falling steadily since 1997, from 16% to 7% of stray dogs caught. However, the numbers are still shocking, with 7,805 dogs euthanised over the period April 1 2013 to March 31 2014. Around 50% of strays were reunited with their owners over this period, either by being reclaimed during the statutory local authority kennelling period (35%) or returned without entering a kennel (15%), suggesting that euthanasia would be unnecessary in a large number of cases.
Greece, Germany and Italy did not, at the time of the study, permit the killing of healthy stray dogs. In Germany and Italy, these animals were kennelled for life if they could not be rehomed, with Greece administering the ‘catch, release, neuter’ policy mentioned above. This begs the question: is it more humane (and practical) to cage an animal for life, to release them after neutering to face the dangers of the street, or to kill them outright? Despite some owners dumping their animals to be looked after by a third party, this is a method that lets dogs keep their lives. No one, surely, can derive happiness from an animal being killed, especially if there are more humane alternatives that don’t hinder the human population to a large extent.
It appears, on the surface at least, that most European countries care about animal welfare. 22 of the 30 countries (70%) that took part in this study have laws which state that abandoning pets is illegal. However, 9 of these countries, including Greece, reported that these laws were hardly ever enforced, which suggests that local authorities are not acting in accordance with the law.
One European country that has, effectively, ‘solved’ the problem of stray dogs is Sweden, through responsible dog ownership and a long history of efficient control methods. According to the World Animal Protection and RSPCA International survey, the country has no stray dogs. If a dog becomes separated from its owner, it is reunited within 24 hours of being collected by the authorities. In addition to this, the license that each owner is required to have is renewed annually for free and there are enforced leash laws. The high level of social responsibility at play means that owners do not readily abandon their dogs, leading to a society that cherishes these animals and doesn’t want to see them on the streets, let alone euthanised.
It seems that education is the only true way to eradicate the problem of stray dogs – but this path is often the most complicated.