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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Should We Be Doing TNR for Community Dogs?

TNR for dogs? It may sound crazy, but hear me out.

We have a few cities, particularly in the southern part of the United States, where large numbers of stray dogs apparently continue to be a problem. I have heard this from credible people who support No Kill — it isn’t just the No Kill deniers who make this claim. In some of these cities live release rates are going up, but local people question whether there is really progress toward a No Kill community since large numbers of stray dogs are not being picked up.

We have other areas of the country where there are dog shortages, and dogs are brought in from outside for adoption. I believe that based on the numbers nationwide we are very close to an overall balance in dog population and that, if we had a great transport network combined with every jurisdiction maxing out its adoption rates, we could have No Kill this year for dogs. But we are not there yet.

One way to tackle the problem of isolated excesses of stray dogs in some of the large cities is classic spay-neuter programs aimed at owned dogs. If 30% or more of the owned females in a city are not sterilized and if the local human population is open to the spay-neuter message, then this approach can have great results. If sterilization rates of owned pets are up around the typical 85% average for the United States, though, or if sterilization rates are lower but people resist sterilizing their pets, then we cannot expect huge reductions in strays with this method.

Some cities resort to trying to catch and kill all the strays. This is a bad method not only because it is morally wrong, but because it is ineffective. Cities tried for 100 years before 1970 to control stray dog populations by means of catch and kill, and it was a complete failure. Stray dog populations continued to rise until the 1970s, when mass spay-neuter became possible.

So what to do? In many cases, stray dogs who live outdoors have a reasonably good life. Alan Beck’s 1970 study of stray dogs in Baltimore found that being hit by a car was the biggest danger for homeless dogs (other than shelter killing), but only a small minority of the total dog population was killed by cars each year. He concluded that, surprisingly, stray dogs were able to find adequate food, water, and shelter and they did not ordinarily suffer from hunger or exposure. Many of them were fed by people living in their neighborhood, and their presence was tolerated.

This sounds a lot like what we now know about community cats. And the preferred solution for community cats these days is TNR or SNR, not catch and kill.

What about simply finding homes for all the stray dogs? I recently spoke to a dedicated No Kill advocate in one southern city who estimated that there were 150,000 stray dogs in his city. That would be 88 dogs per 1000 people, which is an astronomical number and far beyond the ability of even the best No Kill shelter to place within the community. Even if the number of stray dogs was only 1/3 of what this advocate estimates, it would still require an adoption-per-thousand-people rate of 29 dogs, which is well beyond the best rates I know of. And that does not even count dogs who are already going into the shelter. Colorado, which has over a 90% live release rate for dogs, adopted out only 10.5 dogs per 1000 people in 2013.

Recently the leaders of the shelter establishment in the United States have come together behind a set of ideas that are embodied in the Million Cat Challenge. Those ideas include the concept that rather than kill a healthy community cat, the cat should be sterilized and returned to where it was found. Feral cats should be sterilized and returned to a supported colony. Why couldn’t we do the same thing for dogs?

TNR for dogs is not a completely unheard-of idea. India passed a law in 2001 forbidding the killing of street dogs. There are differences of opinion about what has happened since then in terms of nuisance factors and the growth of the dog population, with some people feeling that the dogs are a serious nuisance and a danger to human health (especially from rabies, which is a big problem in India, and dog bites) while others believe that the dogs serve useful functions. The government of India has reacted by instituting a TNR program for street dogs. Other countries are using or considering TNR for stray dogs as well.

Dogs are different from cats in that community cats are less intrusive than stray dogs, because they tend to be nocturnal and more cautious around people. Another difference is that there is a substantial feral population in cats whereas there are very few truly feral dogs, at least in urban and suburban areas. It does not appear as though either of those differences would be fatal to a TNR program for dogs. Beck theorized that the reason that street dogs lived more openly than cats was because people were more accepting of their presence.

I think one reason people don’t like the idea of TNR for dogs is that we see dogs as being more dependent on people for their happiness than cats. People hate the idea of a dog living in the street without a person of its own, and think such a dog must be miserable. Beck’s study indicated that is not the case. Certainly, if the choice was living without a human attachment or being killed, I think the great majority of dogs would choose to live.

Moreover, a TNR program for stray dogs could very quickly reduce the number of strays, probably far more quickly than TNR for cats. Dogs do not have the reproductive capacity that cats have, and something like 75% of puppies born to free-roaming mothers do not survive. And, dogs are easier to locate and capture.

Before a city considers a dog TNR program, it would need to make an effort to answer the following questions:

1. What is the sterilization rate for owned dogs? If it is not at least 70% of females, then an all-hands-on-deck traditional spay-neuter campaign for owned pets may be the best approach, unless the local human population is resistant to that message.

2. What is the number of stray dogs that are not being impounded? If the number of stray dogs that are not being impounded plus the number of unreclaimed stray dogs that are impounded plus the number of owner surrendered dogs substantially exceeds 10 or more per 1000 people, then the shelter may have difficulty adopting its way out of killing with local adoptions.

3. How many dogs could be responsibly transported to other areas of the country where there is a dog shortage and transports would not take homes away from local dogs? Are there sufficient resources to make those transports safely?

If spay-neuter of owned pets is already high or the human population is resistant to pet sterilization, if the number of stray dogs is high, and if responsible transport cannot bring the number of dogs needing adoption down under 10 per 1000 people, then TNR is about the only thing left. A dog TNR project would be a novel and innovative idea for one of the big national organizations to take on. If the program succeeded, it could, in combination with the Million Cat Challenge initiatives, be a quick way to make even the most intransigent southern cities truly No Kill.


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