Understanding Australia’s High Kill Rate of Companion Animals
In Australia, an estimated 250 000 dogs and cats will be killed this year. Most of these animals are healthy and many, as former pets, are affectionate towards humans. The RSPCA’s 2008 figures alone account for 66 503 of these deaths from the 139 548 dogs and cats they took in that year. In most pounds and shelters 20-50 per cent of unclaimed dogs and 60-95 per cent of unclaimed cats are being killed.
What is the cause of Australia’s high kill rate?
The unrestricted breeding of cats and dogs contributes significantly to an oversupply of companion animals. In Australia there are more animals needing homes than there are responsible households willing to include companion animals. The major cause of dog overbreeding is the deliberate breeding of puppies (e.g. in puppy mills) by large scale commercial breeders.
Overbreeding is particularly an issue with cats due to their seasonal breeding (during warmer months). During this time, pounds, animal shelters, rescue groups and vet clinics are often inundated with unwanted kittens. Tens of thousands of kittens are killed every year as a result of overbreeding. The majority of impounded kittens are the offspring of abandoned and undesexed free roaming cats.
2. Overcrowding in pounds and animal shelters
The huge number of cats and kittens taken into pounds and animal shelters in Australia (especially during breeding season) often results in animals becoming stressed and developing illnesses. Many animals are killed due to minor health problems that are curable, such as cat flu or ringworm. Cats and dogs who are considered too timid or aggressive for rehoming are also killed.
3. Failure to desex pets
Many pet owners still have dogs and cats who are not desexed. This makes a huge contribution to Australia’s high kills rates, particularly with cats. Surveys suggest 15-18 per cent of female cats have had at least one litter before being desexed. Desexing is carried out by a qualified veterinary surgeon under general anaesthesia. The female is speyed, which is the removal of the ovaries, or the ovaries and uterus, and males are castrated, which is the removal of the testicles. Both procedures are quick and humane, with little post-operative discomfort.
4. Lack of identification for pets (e.g. microchipping)
Another contributing factor to the oversupply of cats and dogs in pounds and shelters is the lack of identification, such as microchipping. While approximately half of abandoned cats are surrendered by their owners, the majority of stray impounded cats who enter pounds and shelters are easy to handle, which means they are currently, or have been, owned. If a lost dog or cat becomes impounded and has a form of identification (e.g. microchip or a collar and tag), they must be held for a maximum of 14 days for their owners to reclaim them. However, if there is no identification, animals are usually held for a much shorter period of time before being killed.
5. Inadequate containment of cats
Cat owners have a more casual attitude towards containing their cats than dog owners, possibly due to their independent nature and the difficulty of containing cats in suburban yards with traditional fences. While more recently people are being educated to keep their cats indoors or with a backyard enclosure or cat-safe fence, the inadequate containment of cats remains a problem, contributing to unwanted breeding (if cats are not desexed) or cats getting lost and becoming impounded.
6. Lack of knowledge, commitment and social responsibility
Commercial breeders who breed companion animals on a large scale often do not provide for their animals’ physical and mental wellbeing. This results in animals suffering from inbreeding (which results in developmental defects), a lack of socialisation and exercise, a failure to prevent genetic or health problems and irresponsible rehoming practices. It is difficult to assess adequate preparation and commitment of any new owner when animals are sold over the internet or transported to pet shops for sale by a third party.
Purchasers are often not provided with adequate information to ensure they choose appropriate breeds for their circumstances, leading to many surrenders when a puppy has become an energetic dog requiring more exercise, care and stimulation than envisaged. A lack of information, lack of research and lack of preparation means many owners fail to plan for their capacity to commit to an animal for life and fail to manage the needs of their companion animal in terms of socialisation, behavioural training and environmental enrichment. Thus many people subsequently contribute to an oversupply of animals by abandoning their pets to pounds and shelters when their life circumstances change or their pets exhibit stressed behaviours.
Pet shop owners vary in their commitment to the wellbeing of companion animals (e.g. in terms of where they source their animals from, the animals’ wellbeing while in the pet shop, and the animals’ future wellbeing when they are rehomed or if they do not find a home). Socially responsible pet shops choose to rehome abandoned animals on behalf of animal welfare or rescue groups, and take in unwanted animals from the public for desexing and rehoming which helps to reduce the oversupply. Some pet shops provide support to the new owners and are willing to help rehome an animal if an owner cannot subsequently keep an animal. However many others ignore this responsibility.