Strays health and welfare can be seriously affected when they live under poor conditions, and when inhumane and ineffective population control measures are used.
Many of these animals used to have a home, and have ended up homeless due to irresponsible human behaviour. A 2015 study commissioned by the European Union cited uncontrolled reproduction, financial difficulties and owners relocating as the main factors contributing to stray animal populations. Overbreeding also leads to some pets not being sold and therefore released into the wild.
Many of the stray dogs in the EU were born from unsterilised owned dogs that are free to roam. Certain groups of stray cats are also referred to as feral, meaning unsocialised: they are the offspring of cats from private households and have not had any contact with humans.
It is not possible to use one single approach to manage stray populations. To be successful, approaches have to be adjusted to the local situation and the population, and it is fundamental to involve the local community. In some countries, political pressure or a health crisis can lead local governments to decide for short-term, inhumane and ineffective solutions or choose lethal methods, and a lack of knowledge or resources prevent them from designing their management approaches with animal and human welfare in mind.
There are more effective alternatives to managing stray populations. Research is currently being done on the sustainability, effectiveness and efficiency of methods, which include providing shelter. However, long-term sheltering is not the answer. A number of powerful documentaries on the treatment of stray animals in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Romania among other places, have shown that the animals taken into these establishments don’t always receive the care they need, and are treated inhumanely or malnourished.
Also, population sizes do not always allow for the costly option of sheltering and adopting out the animals. This is where neutering is incremental: catching and releasing, also known as Trap, Neuter and Return (TNR), also provides an opportunity for vaccination and for the animal’s overall health to be checked.
WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?
The perception of stray animals is quite different throughout Europe. In some locations strays are rare, whereas in other communities, wild dogs and cats are seen as part of nature.
Lack of neutering, no traceability, the boom in irresponsible breeding and the online trade only add to the problem of strays. That’s partly due to impulsive consumption behaviours, reflected in people considering pets as products and buying them on impulse without an accurate understanding or acceptance of the commitment that pet ownership requires.
Awareness that it is important to consider adopting from a shelter rather than buying from a breeder is increasing in some countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands or Germany, according to a 2015 study by the European Commission on the wellbeing of cats and dogs.
In the Balkans, local communities are working together with animal advocacy organisations to permanently solve the problem of stray dogs. The initiative has found that for free-roaming owned dogs, identification and registration are very important, and come as a package together with sterilisation. Ultimately with a control over numbers and movement of animals, there is more grip over the situation.
POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY
The management of stray populations is not an EU-level competence, so there is no legislation in the European Union for the management of cats and dogs, or for how Member States and competent authorities should deal with strays. It is incumbent on Member States to regulate their stray populations, and in most countries this is handled at municipal level. Some municipalities are not up to the challenge of protecting these vulnerable populations.
In the Netherlands, however, the government has taken a different approach, which focuses on human behaviour, by punishing people for mistreating animals, as well as offering free spay and neuter services for dogs. The Netherlands also has police resources dedicated to animal cruelty, as does Finland, where Eurogroup for Animals’ member organisation SEY helped set up a police unit to investigate cases in which animals are the victims of crimes carried out by humans or other animals.
At present, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) coordinates various programmes and guidelines to manage or control stray populations in different European regions, as does the International Companion Management Coalition (ICAM). There are several schemes developed by Eurogroup for Animals’ member organisations like the one run by Animais de Rua: thanks to TNR, they managed to improve the welfare of both animals and people.
EU funding is only accessible for the control or eradication of stray dog populations in the case of rabies and echinococcosis epidemics, as outlined in Regulation (EU) No 652/2014. Under the Animal Health Law, funding will be provided to Member States to proactively prevent the spread of other transmissible diseases.