Photo of a dog behind a chain-link fence at th...
Image via Wikipedia

The fate of the homeless

It seems inconceivable that as a society we have come to accept the killing of thousands of healthy companion animals for whom no homes can be found—rather than demanding proactive solutions by government to stop the unrestricted breeding and selling of companion animals. The role of killing homeless animals often falls to those who care most—the employees of animal shelters and this task can take a terrible personal toll.

National Summit to End Pet Overpopulation

In June of 2006 Animals Australia co-sponsored the inaugural National Summit to End Pet Overpopulation on the Gold Coast. The Summit organised by the Animal Welfare League of Qld and the National Desexing Network was attended by 125 delegates from all Australian states and territories and New Zealand who united in their call for an end to the killing of at least 200 000 healthy cats and dogs in Australia each year.

The Summit revealed that up to 96% of stray and surrendered cats and kittens, and 60% of stray and surrendered dogs are killed in some pounds and shelters.

A key resolution for action was for legislation to require desexing and microchipping prior to sale or exchange of cats and dogs,  recognizing that overbreeding is a major problem that urgently needs to be addressed.

Other resolutions were that a National Coalition be formed, that common national data be coordinated and gathered, that understanding and training of veterinarians in early age desexing be pursued and that a Policy Development Committee on free living cats be formed.

Why are there too many dogs and cats in Australia?

The Problems



The unrestricted breeding of cats and dogs simply means that there are more animals than the number of responsible homes available.

Cats breed seasonally resulting in a “kitten tsunami” in the warmer months between November and April. Over half of shelter admissions are unwanted kittens. . While it has been argued that approximately 90% of owned cats are already desexed, unwanted cats and kittens are still being surrendered, at a rate that the community cannot rehome.  The volume of cats and kittens in pounds and shelters during the breeding season means that many are euthanased due to minor curable health problems such as flu and ringworm, or minor socialization issues such as being too timid or too assertive. There are simply too many to treat, and not enough homes for all the healthy ones anyway.

A Victorian survey revealed that 13% of cats had a litter prior to desexing. Many people do not realize that cats can be pregnant by 4 months of age. Most vet schools and veterinarians have been recommending the traditional 6 – 8  months of age for desexing, despite the benefits of early age desexing between 2 – 3 months. Most refuges and shelters desex all the cats and dogs they rehome at this early age, and research has shown it is just as safe and less stressful on the animal.

Lack of identification

Another contributing factor to the killing of cats and dogs in pounds and shelters is the lack of identification. The majority of cats which enter pounds and shelters as strays are handleable by humans which means they have been owned, but have not been identified. This means they can not be returned to their owners which adds to the oversupply and the “euthanasia”. Only about 5% of cats are reclaimed from pounds and shelters by the owners; whereas up to 70% of dogs are reclaimed.

Too many of some breed types

The issue with dogs is different. In many areas, there are too many of some breed types, particularly the working dog and larger dog breeds for the numbers of suitable homes available in urban areas. There are large numbers of undesexed dogs and cats in rural and remote communities where there is a lack of services. Many dogs are euthanased based on unsuitable behaviour, due to not being socialized and positively trained by their owners.

Dogs and cats are also being surrendered due to a shortage of pet-friendly accommodation when people move.

Backyard breeding

‘Urban myths’ abound in the suburbs. Many people believe a cat or dog should have a litter before being desexed, that it is unfair to desex their cat or dog, that it’s cute for the children to see a litter being born, or that breeding is a great way to make a few dollars. Whether by mistake or (well intentioned, but misguided) design, the little ones bred in the ‘backyard’ are then sold, given away, foisted on friends and relatives or end up in animal shelters.    For each one that finds a willing home, the hidden effect is that the ‘adoption pens’ at the dozens of shelters across Australia remain overcrowded, and the ‘killing rooms’ are kept busy.


Puppy farms

Worse still, there are a number of ‘puppy farms’ around Australia, keeping dozens, sometimes hundreds of breeding dogs.  They focus on breeding ‘designer’ breeds, often the schitsu and maltese cross varieties—the typical ‘white fluffies’ that look so appealing ‘in the window’ of the pet shops.  The breeding dogs are kept in kennels (of various standards) and rarely have sufficient human company, exercise or companionship. 

Some puppy farms have been exposed by activists in recent years showing the appallingly barren accommodation—with unhealthy breeding dogs huddled without adequate shelter or any bedding.       


Pet shops

Operators of puppy farms and commercially motivated ‘backyard breeders’ regularly sell through pet shops or through newspaper classifieds.  Many pet shops encourage impulse buying of animals and are the primary supporters of commercial breeding enterprises. Some pet shops are now choosing to only rehome refuge animals, and/or take in unwanted animals from the public for desexing and rehoming.      

Pet shops are regulated in different ways in each State and Territory—whilst most require the kittens and pups to be vaccinated, and some to be microchipped, none yet requires them to be desexed prior to sale.

Not only does the selling of undesexed animals eventually contribute to the number of unwanted animals in shelters, for every animal sold, equally healthy and deserving animals needing homes in animal shelters are on death row waiting for someone to adopt them.

The solutions


Mandatory Desexing prior to sale

If puppies and kittens are desexed before they are sold or transferred to their new home—then they cannot contribute to the current pet overpopulation. This needs to be a national  approach, introduced via each State’s legislation, and enforced by Local Government officers with assistance from animal welfare agencies.
Note: Exemptions should be provided for animals being acquired by licensed breeders (of purebreds, moggies and Heinz 57 varieties!) who agree to abide by responsible breeding guidelines.

Desexing can be done as early as 6-8 weeks of age, but must be by 4 months of age for kittens and 5 months for pups, i.e. before they can get pregnant. Encourage neighbours, friends, family and work colleagues to recognise the need for ‘early age’ desexing.

In some States, such as Victoria, it is the law that all shelters desex animals prior to sale—but this law does not yet apply to pet shops or other private sales! In the ACT, a permit is required if a dog or cat is undesexed from 6 months of age. There is currently a Bill in progress to reduce the age at which cats must be desexed to 3 months.


What you can do

  • Take the pledge to adopt, not buy — adopting a pound or refuge dog or cat can save a life.  Encourage your friends and family to make the pledge as well.
  • Ensure that your pets have a visible collar and address tag, and are microchipped so that even if they lose a collar they can be returned to their home, and will not become a euthanasia statistic!
  • Support ‘pet shops’ that only sell pet food and accessories, and direct people to shelters if they want a new pet. Some pet shops help rehome refuge animals or help by advertising displaced animals searching for a new home in their windows. These pet shops should be supported as they are part of the solution rather than the problem.