Feralan: A.Beck. English.

The Dog: America 's Sacred Cow?

A leading expert on urban animal control reviews the alternatives open to city officials facing a widely worsening situation nationwide

 

ALAN M. BECK

MOST PEOPLE demonstrate a de­sire to be in contact with nature. Cities, often viewed as that which re­places natural areas, pose a special problem for urban dwellers who also attempt to surround themselves with living things.

City parks, street trees, window boxes, accepting pigeons and house pets are examples of this response. Of all urban animals, the dog is the most pervasive. Nearly 38 per cent of all families own one dog. The household average is 1.4 dogs which is almost a dog for every six people. Cats are owned by nearly 20 per cent of the families.

Pets vs. Pests

Recently, dogs have gone from being benignly accepted as "man's best friend" to a source of concern at the social, medical, and political levels. Cities all over the country are review­ing their dog control ordinances. This new awareness is probably related to the recent rapid increase in the canine population, especially the larger breeds. More dogs mean more dog-human contact, making more severe the annoyances and diseases related to dogs. The growing popularity of the larger breeds has been accompanied by an increase in reported bites and complaints about dog waste.

Table 1 shows all the reported animal bites for New York City in 1971; dogs account for 93 per cent of all bites and 95 per cent of all pet bites. Contrary to popular belief, pet dogs do more injury than strays, even though bites from pets tend to be underreported. Most injury occurs while the pet is loose and better than 1 out of every 50 emergency room admis­sions is for dog bite injury.

A study of the age proportion of the St. Louis population compared with the dog victimized population reveals that dog bite injury is obvious­ly not in proportion to the population at risk, for 2 per cent of all 5- to 9-year-olds are bitten each year.

Larger dogs also produce more waste. For example, New York 's dog population produces over 150 tons of feces dailya contamination that would not be tolerated from any other mammalian source.

 

Legislative Responses to Pets

□ Kinds of PetsRegulations gov­erning the kinds of pets permitted should be based on what is best for the animal, the consequences of escape, and possible transmission of disease.

Logic, therefore, would prohibit ownership of large predators, endan­gered species, attack trained dogs, poisonous snakes, and primates.

□ DogsSince dogs hold a special place in the cityboth as cherished pet and as serious animal problem most cities have specific ordinances for them:

Leash laws: Free-running dogs (pet and stray) account for the vast major­ity of bite injuries, and cause garbage disruption, automobile accidents, and fecal contamination in unsuspected areas. Therefore most municipalities require direct human supervision of pets and collection of strays and stray­ing pets.

If rigorously enforced, this one procedure would be the most humane way to lower the dog population, while benefitting the canines in gen­eral. Leashed dogs cannot breed promiscuously and are not killed by cars or collected by the pound. In Baltimore well over 23,000 animals are killed on the streets or after being captured each year. Obviously, many more are killed but not found.

Waste control: Once animals are leashed, cities can request dogs not be walked on sidewalks or in parks, thereby lessening the possibility of contact with feces and urine, both potential sources of disease (for ex­ample, visceral larva migrans from dogs with worms, and leptospirosis, which can be transmitted even by properly vaccinated dogs).

In Baltimore , with no "curb" law, nearly half the leashed dogs were walked on the sidewalks, nearly 10 per cent in parks and playgrounds, and only 18 per cent in the streets (gutters).

Curbing lessens human contact with feces and urine but adds to the bur­den of the storm sewer system. In cities with combined storm and sani­tary systems, dogs add to the proc­essing burden and if the systems are separate, contaminated effluent is added to local waterways.

The logical step is to require owners to clean up after their animals ("scoop" laws), or better yet, to use their own property (lawns or in-house toileting) for dog waste. This is noth­ing more than extending the antilitter codes that already exist to dogs, which by tradition have been exempted.

Noise control: Dog bark is a grow­ing noise pollution problem as people own larger dogs which often are en­couraged to bark at strangers. Bark­ing can startle and cause stress at some distance. Dogs are so nonspecific in their barking that one might argue that people should purchase alarms specifically designed for the purpose of warding off prowlers. Many cities now rigorously enforce their noise ordinances.

Bark-activated shock collars which train dogs to stop barking are avail­able for those owners whose dogs have serious barking problems. Routine socialization with strangers also helps, as does keeping the dog indoors at night.

Rabies: Although most rabies cases occur in wildlife, most people requir­ing rabies treatment do so because of dog bite. In this age of camping and travelling, a nationwide rabies vac­cination requirement is long overdue.

Numbers and size: Dogs exhibit many socially facilitated behaviors; that is, behaviors initiated by an in­dividual and mimicked by the group. Therefore, groups of dogs pose special problems such as pack attacks and chorous barking. Many cities have separate, more expensive, kennel licenses, though zoning of kennels is uncommon, as is the practice with horses and livestock.

Perhaps zoning or at least requiring undeveloped land as a buffer zone should be considered for allowing multiple ownership. Encouragement of smaller dogs in dense urban areas would also be appropriate. Small dogs still offer companionship and can warn owners of strangers without being as intrusive.

Spay and neuter clinics: There is an ever-growing feeling that municipali­ties should finance the sterilizing of pets and to this end legislation at the state and federal level has been pro­posed. The logic is that all cities are faced with the social tragedy and fi­nancial loss of having to kill thousands of unwanted dogs and cats yearly.

Implicit in these proposals, how­ever, is a tacit encouragement of per­mitting sterilized animals to run free,

Such animals still bite, turn over garbage cans, bark, defecate, and get hit by cars. If leash laws were strictly enforced, pets would not get pregnant. Of course, there are irresponsible owners who do not supervise their animals, but there is no evidence that these people would avail themselves of nonprofit sterilizing clinics anyway.

There is no reason to increase the license fee for intact animals if the owner realizes that the animal must always be supervised. To do so is to levy a fine before the law is violated. Appropriate fines should be charged only after a straying animal is cap­tured.

Owners may still want to get their pets altered, since such pets are more tractable; however, there is no reason to subsidize the operation any more than any other veterinary expense.

Euthanasia: At least 12 per cent of the entire U.S. dog population is killed yearly by municipalities, since no city can afford the expense of main­taining thousands of unwanted ani­mals. Basically, there is no reason to be blatantly cruel in the method of disposing of unwanted pets.

Beyond that, methods should be judged in terms of safety for the operator and of the expense involved. Individual injections of a lethal drug are expensive, involve a great deal of handling of the animals, and require the services of a veterinarian to be done properly.

In addition, storing large quantities of narcotics can be a problem for ani­mal shelters. A carbon monoxide chamber exposes the operator to an unnecessary risk. Carbon dioxide chambers appear to be the most humane, safe, and inexpen­sive method.

Even though pet food companies use thousands of animals in their re­search and development, and the American Kennel Club requires the docking of ears and tails of some breeds, municipalities are often singu­larly criticized for supplying animals to scientific institutions.

Using unwanted animals for medi­cal research and training is both humane and necessary. The only alternative to using animals is to use people. Tissue culture and computer models are useful but do not replace a whole organism in research, drug testing, and the training of physicians and veterinarians. In some ways, dogs and cats are part of the intellectual "food chain" that has permitted man to survive.

Education and responsibility: Tra­ditionally, backyard breeders and poor people who have difficulty maintaining their pets properly have been blamed for the pet population explosion and subsequent crises. Analogously, this is like blaming the tobacco farmer and uninformed cigarette smoker for lung cancer. In fact, it was the cigarette industry which promoted the excessive advertising to information needed to promote responsible owner­ship. The dog has been made a sacred cow. The responsibilities, expenses, and public health implications of own­ership have been minimized and own­ership has been given status and an aura of freedom and patriotism.

Municipal legislators have been hesitant to intervene, almost always prefacing statements with how much they personally love dogs, as if en­couraging responsible ownership is anything less than an expression of love. New York City 's sign telling owners they must clean up after their animals is prefaced by the word "please." I have never seen any other posted directive so tentatively and so politely worded.

The vast numbers of nonowners and many responsible owners appear to be a disenfranchised majority poorly organized and therefore poorly represented. However, strictly enforcing the leash law, fecal retrieval, and rabies vaccination will not only lessen much of the public health impact of dogs, but will go a long way in en­couraging a healthier and happier dog population. The humane treatment of dogs and other animals and sound public health practices are not mutually exclusive but are most often one and the same.

The next step is to get balanced in­formation to the public so it can choose the most suitable companion pet, if any, it desires. Pet food com­panies and kennel clubs should use part of their public relations budgets to discuss the responsibilities of own­ership in urban areas rather than con­tinuously using the rural model in which everyone has lots of room. School children, who are taught how to cross streets and turn in fire alarms, use of cigarettes without properly in­forming the public about the risks and value of moderation; it was found to be guilty of irresponsible advertising and was subsequently regulated.

In much the same way, breeders and owners are responding to a de­mand for dogs and cats created by the huge pet food industry. For the most part, this industry has not cou­pled its could also learn about how best to behave with their own pet and when meeting a straying animal. Local veterinarians should be encouraged to go to the schools and discuss com­panion petsnot just dogs.

The end result should be a healthy population of animals sharing the urban environment with man, thus creating a genuine respect for life.

 

 

Dr. Alan M. Beck is the chairman of the Urban Ecology Task Force and coordinates a series of dog ecology and behavior studies at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Wash­ington University , St. Louis , Mo. He received his doctorate at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Pub­lic Health in Baltimore ; his thesis con­cerned dog control and has been pub­lished under the title, The Ecology of Stray Dogs.

 

 

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