Did You Know…
Free range dogs are a problem all over the world. It is estimated that there are over 900 million dogs living on the street worldwide, making up 75-85% of the global dog population. Central and South America are no different from the rest of the world, where free-range dogs fight for territory and resources, suffer, reproduce, and die in plain sight.
Years ago, the streets of Boquete were filled with stray, sick, roaming packs of dogs. Dog fights, disease, and suffering were painfully evident. While Boquete is not totally free of neglected street dogs, the picture is very different now. How did that happen? Since free-range dogs are a problem throughout Panama, how has the problem been minimized here?
Dogs fit into a continuum from 1) fully controlled house pets; to 2) family dogs that spend time outside and time indoors; to 3) neighborhood dogs that are semi-restricted and semi-dependent on a few specific people; to 4)unrestricted dogs that are free-roaming but semi-dependent on specific people; to 5) feral dogs that are free roaming and unattached to any humans. Most street dogs fall into the first four groups, as very few, unlike cats, are truly feral.
Strays can form large packs with a defined social structure, which leads to fights for the dominant position. Dog packs can hunt for domestic animals (chickens, cats, house dogs), can attack humans if cornered, and destroy bags of garbage left outside. Street dogs can be defensive, fearful, aggressive, and have an increased prey drive, which is necessary for survival in an environment with limited resources.
Street dogs exist because of people. They cannot survive without human beings, whose garbage is their main source of food. Studies estimate that homeless street dogs subsist 95% on garbage and 5% on handouts.
When street dogs are uncared for and puppies are not rescued, dogs tend to starve, become stressed and sick, transmit zoonotic diseases to humans. A truly homeless dog (as opposed to an owned dog that is free roaming) will tend to show signs of ill health: bloated belly due to parasites, emaciated bone structure, rough, dull coat, mange, eye and nasal discharge.
One fertile female street dog has the potential to produce up to 67,000 offspring within six years, although the high mortality rate depresses that number. A street dog survives an average of 3.5-4 years before succumbing to disease, starvation, or poisoning. Research on street dog populations shows an 81% mortality rate for puppies within the first seven months.
Aggression toward humans and other dogs is a dangerous problem. Dog fights for position in the social hierarchy are common, with an associated risk of humans being bitten. Intact males can fight each other over females and territory. Females can fight each other for scarce resources to support their puppies, and can attack humans who come too close to their litter.
Zoonotic Diseases Transmissible by Free-Ranging DogsThis table is a partial listing of zoonotic diseases, or those transmissible from dogs to humans, that may appear in Panama. The table excludes diseases only transmissible to other dogs. It also excludes Rabies and the Plague, which do not occur here. Reports of Lyme Disease transmitted by dogs to humans in Panama are ambiguous, so they are excluded here. TO VIEW TABLE ON A CELL PHONE, TURN YOUR PHONE TO THE HORIZONTAL POSITION.
Euthanasia is Not the Answer
The Humane Society International indicates that Latin America is doing a very poor job of managing stray dog populations in a humane, effective way. Slaughtering street dogs by a variety of grotesque means is not only offensive, cruel, and contrary to the values of a caring society, it is also completely ineffective at reducing the population. Dogs in Turkey have suffered agonizing deaths from poisoning campaigns, and the mass murder has done nothing to reduce the street dog population.
If specific dogs are removed and euthanized, the problem will remain because the conditions that sustain the stray population remain unchanged. There are now vacancies in the local pack structure. New stray dogs enter the now vacant territory, and as long as humans provide sources of food, including garbage and prey animals such as chickens, the problem will remain. Those dogs who remain behind attack the newcomers, thus perpetuating the trend of dog fights. Pups born to unsterilized females move into the now-vacant territory and continue the pattern of fighting and mating. Mating brings more pups, and the problem repeats, even when many dogs are removed and killed.
Completely removing all potential sources of food, such as garbage and chickens, is impractical and unlikely in the local context, and would result in mass starvation, suffering, and death of the street dog population.
Because canine ecology is so closely linked to human activities, people must change their attitudes and behavior in order to humanely minimize the number of street dogs.
Sterilization, Rehab, Adoption, and Education Are Better Solutions
Research shows that sterilization is key to reducing the population of street dogs. The solution is to sterilize all street dogs, rehabilitate and adopt pups and friendly adults, and keep the sterilized adults healthy for the remainder of their lives. British and Indian programs for ABC (Animal Birth Control) emphasize sterilization, with the aim of producing a smaller, more stable, and healthier street dog population that will eventually age out.
Enhancing veterinary skills, supporting sterilization clinics, educating animal owners about responsible pet practices, fostering and adopting friendly adults and puppies, and promoting partnerships between local government and non-profit groups is more effective at lowering and stabilizing the population of street dogs.
The process of rescuing, fostering, socializing, and providing veterinary care for individual street dogs is complicated, and requires months of expensive rehab in most cases. The demand for local vacancies for fostering street dogs far exceeds the regional capacity. The logistics of capturing, sterilizing, and releasing street dogs is complex and requires many volunteers.
This is not an overnight solution – it has taken years to reduce the population of street dogs in Boquete District, and there are still problems in the district, as well as in other areas of Chiriqui. To date, all work in Boquete District to reduce the population of street dogs has been done without the support of local government.
The work is far from done – many hands are needed to control the suffering and risk to public health. What can you do? You can donate cash (even $10/month is a valuable contribution), medicine or pet food, foster, volunteer, educate, and/or adopt. As is the case with homeless cats, people assume Somebody Else will solve the problem. Somebody Else does not live in Boquete. You do. We all need your help.
Millie’s Journey: From Calle to Casa
Millie is a street dog rescued by SALDEA from Bajo Boquete in February 2019. She was found in a state of advanced starvation, just fur, bones, and patches of bare skin. Because Millie was so weak and sick, she was placed in a specially contained area in a foster home, where we discovered that Millie had no idea what commercial dog food was. She had never eaten a “normal” meal. Her teeth were heavily worn down, which led us to suspect that she had been eating rocks. Millie was introduced to dog food gradually, and treated for parasites and anemia. She had to eat Hill’s a/d Urgent Care food for a period of time, which is extremely expensive.
As she acclimated to commercial dog food, Millie slowly regained her health and energy over a period of four months. Millie moved to a new foster home where she could run and exercise her under-developed muscles. Starvation had reduced her muscle mass, and she needed to rebuild her strength. We also discovered that Millie displayed same-sex aggression. We attribute this to the fact that she had had at least one (and likely more) litter of puppies, and must have fought for scarce resources for her offspring. This behavior pattern is entirely consistent with a homeless street dog.
After she was vaccinated and sterilized, we wondered who would want a complicated adult like Millie when we are inundated with adorable, fat little puppies. But a special family appeared at Novey in June 2019. They were looking for a mature dog. They took one look at Millie, and it was love at first sight! Millie is now an only dog, living on a large fenced property where she can get the exercise she needs. Her new family understands her history and is giving her the chance to enjoy a bright future.
Millie’s journey ended happily ever after. What about the hundreds of other homeless street dogs in Boquete District?