The Plight of India’s Abandoned Dogs

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Image: Shrenik Rao / 7MB
Pet owners are increasingly turning on their dogs and abandoning them. How do household pets adapt to the harsh life of the streets?

I first met Bittoo under the mango tree near our house. He was with a bunch of boys, two of them his owners. I didn’t notice him at first, as I stood at a distance feeding some stray dogs. Before long, there was commotion and I realized that the biscuits I was flinging at my regular dog squad were being intercepted mid-air by a lithe interloper.  The intruder was Bittoo; he had made his way to our side of the street and now wanted everyone’s share.

I was puzzled: Who is he? Why is he taking their food? He was wearing a blue collar, and was definitely a pet – aren’t pets usually well-fed?

Image: Anusha Narain

A couple of days later, the same sequence played out on a different street. Another time he came to my home looking for biscuits. I wondered again why does he keep coming for food? Is he not being fed properly at home?

In the next few days, Bittoo became more visible around my house. He began displaying dominance over other strays and slowly encroached upon their territory. Soon, he was bunking outside my home most of the time. But he is a pet with a home, so why is he on the street?

I was curious. When I ran into the boys, I asked them about it. They said Bitto hadn’t been home all week and they didn’t quite know why. I approached their father, who said, “The dog doesn’t like to be confined to the house. If he comes back, we’ll take him in.”  I believed his story. With Bitto living on the street, was he now a street dog? The ambiguity persisted.

One day, I found him near his old home. He was on the street peering inside the house through the iron gate. I saw him around his house several times that week. They did not take him in. It was now painfully clear that Bittoo, the tall, brown dog had been abandoned.

According to a 2015 Times of India report, the number of abandoned pets had more than doubled in Mumbai. “Earlier, we rescued around two dogs each week. Now the number is ten,” said Pooja Sakpal of Youth Organization in Defense of Animals (YODA).

According to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, abandoning any animal for any reason can lead to three months of imprisonment. Shamalatha Rao, a freelance animal rights activist, laments the fact that this punishment isn’t strict enough to deter offenders. While other nations are pushing for stringent laws against animal cruelty, three months imprisonment coupled with flimsy implementation renders it to be a law that exists only on paper.

Bystanders to a booming pet-care market

Image: Anusha Narain

According to a 2014-Euromonitor report, as many as 12 million Indian households own pets, five million more than did in 2009. Higher incomes, easy availability of pets, delayed marriages, and the growing loneliness of urban living have led to a greater need for animal companionship. Breed dogs, popular in advertisements and films, are in great demand. But new pet-owners often fail to consider the cost of keeping one. Often, the animals are discarded once medical bills start to pile up.

Nisha (name changed), who adopted two breed dogs, said, “I got my Pomeranian at the hospital who was left there by her previous owners. She had cancer. My neighbour was all set to get rid of his Rottweiler, he had mange and a kidney stone when I took him in”.

She highlighted another aspect of the business, “Foreign breeds are illegally bred by unlicensed breeders in poor conditions, who sell them very young for high profits. The puppies thus sold have compromised immune systems and hereditary conditions. Owners soon get tired of taking care of the ill dogs and abandon them.”

Mona Farid, a Mumbai-based animal rescuer, claims Pomeranians are the most frequently abandoned breed – because it’s not so glamorous to own them anymore. “People now want ‘Vodaphone-walla kutta’ or other trendier European breeds. They also prefer pups to old dogs because they are cuter,” he says.

The business of breeding has led to questionable practices. Arun G. Of the Chenna-based NGO “People for Cattle in India” claims that breeders abandon mother dogs who are past their prime. “These dogs were “Breeding Machines” throughout their lives and once they are past their prime, they are let loose on roads”.

What happens to abandoned dogs?

Street dog

You can see them waiting for their owners, in hospitals and shelters. For the unlucky ones doomed to the streets, they must rummage for food and water (both scarce), tackle opponents, brave extreme weather, battle infections, be constantly vigilant of passing vehicles through disease, starvation and thirst – lest the mighty humans get hassled enough to start a dog-culling drive.

Female dogs often spend their whole lives in cycles of pregnancy and labour – which few of their pups able to survive the harsh streets.

It is very difficult for a pet dog, who has known the order and comfort of a home, to adjust to the chaotic existence of the street. For many, it’s too late to learn effective survival skills. In Bittoo’s case, he contracted mange, grew thinner and weaker, suffered bruises from countless fights with the other dogs, and almost became roadkill half a dozen times – all within a month.

Matters get worse if the animal is a foreign breed. “A Siberian Husky or a Saint Barnard can’t withstand the extreme Indian weather. Desi or non-descriptive breeds are tolerant of and resistant to local climatic conditions,” said Dr Ranganadh Pusuluri, a veterinary doctor. “Furthermore, breeds like German Shepherd, Labrador, Doberman, Great Dane are more susceptible to parvo viral Infection (spreads in unsanitary conditions),” he added.

It’s the sense of abandonment that hits hardest at the heart. I saw this in Bittoo – more morose during his first month on the street than I had ever seen him before. By day, he was still the alpha who snatched everybody’s food. But his howls pierced the cold air at night.

While many people love dogs, few are willing to take in a sick stray. The need of the hour is to adopt – not buy – Desi breeds. For abandoned dogs, it’s a second chance at the only life they were prepared for.

A dog’s life is around 14 years, and an owner must be committed enough to stay with them all the way.  Otherwise, they’re throwing away an innocent life.

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