Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

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Posted on Wed, December 15, 2004

Before adopting, make sure pets will have a good home for life


My stomach did a double flip when a friend of mine told me that her dog had given birth to six puppies two weeks ago.

“How did that happen?” I asked. Of course, I know how that happens, but she knew what I meant. How, after watching me rescue, adopt and find homes for unwanted animals for the past 15 years, did she allow her eight-month-old puppy to contribute to the pet overpopulation problem?

Well, in one way, 'tis the season. It's the season when puppies who were born in the early summer months are mature enough to have offspring of their own, and some people, like my friend, may believe that animals need to come into heat once before being spayed. 'Tis the season also when some people think it's OK to find a cute little puppy or kitten and give it as a holiday gift.

Jack Jones, interim director the Unified Government's Animal Control division, has nearly 3,000 reasons to dispel such animal myths. That is the number of dogs and cats the division has impounded this year. Of those, at least 60 percent, or 1,800 Fidos and Fluffys, were put to death.

It's an ugly side of the pet industry that most breeders and irresponsible pet owners don't want to acknowledge, but it's a huge problem, particularly in Missouri and Kansas, which rank No. 1 and 2 in the nation for commercial pet breeding. Several years ago, while reporting on a story about a vicious dog, I was led through the animal control facility to see it on a day when animals were being put down. The number of dead animal bodies being prepared for disposal made me sick.

“For every parent who tells me that they want their children to see the miracle of birth by allowing their animals to breed, I tell them they should see the tragedy of death,” Jones told me then.

But the Unified Government isn't to blame. We expect the government to protect us from threats, such as wild animals, and they are doing so in rounding up the strays in the city. However, they only have room for so many — 95 to be exact, and if animals are not claimed by their owners or adopted, some won't make it out of the shelter alive.

It is the responsibility of citizen pet owners to make sure their animals have a good home for life, which can mean anywhere from five to 20 years. Jones said that the cycle of problems usually start around the holiday season, when parents or others decide that children or other family members would like to have a cuddly puppy or kitten for a gift.

“When they grow up, they aren't cute anymore,” Jones said. “That's when people will usually turn on their pet.”

The result is that between March and August municipal shelters are usually full and rescue organizations overwhelmed.

That's when frustrated pet owners may let their animals roam, or worse yet, dump them into another neighborhood, thinking someone will take them in.

Dispelling the belief that animals make good gifts could help the problem. The Humane Society of Greater Kansas City and other organizations try to discourage people from giving pets as gifts.

“The person who receives a pet may not be ready for a pet, or it may not be suited to their lifestyle,” said Sarah Spearman, development director for the Humane Society.

Spearman suggests giving a pet bed or a box filled with collars, toys, bowls and leashes and allowing people to choose the pet best suited for them after the holidays are over. People may also get someone a gift certificate for spaying or neutering an animal they already own. Many organizations, such as the Humane Society, also have a Sponsor a Pet program, which gives someone a chance to sponsor a shelter animal.

It also might help to dispel the myth that animals should reach puberty and come into heat at least once before having them spayed. Quite the opposite is true, according to Emily Edgar, a veterinarian with Welborn Pet Hospital.

The risk of mammary cancer in female animals drops significantly if they are sterilized before their first heat, which usually occurs at about six months of age. Neutering male animals early also will reduce their risk of prostate and testicular cancer later in life, as well as helping to reduce male aggressive behavior and other behavioral problems, such as spraying by cats.

“We recommend having an animal spayed or neutered by six months,” Edgar said.

Animal Control is already making inroads to help people understand the pet overpopulation problem. Pet adoption at the municipal shelter was up this year. Euthanasia rates have dropped from about 80 percent to about 65 percent due to education programs in the community, as well as better advertising about adoptable pets. But putting to death nearly 1,800 animals a year still isn't acceptable. Jones and other animal advocates hope that more people will become better informed.

“Pet owners need to take responsibility and realize that these are companion animals, …,” Jones said. “… They get attached to people and then, when their owners tire of them, I'm sure the animals don't understand why these people suddenly don't love them any more.”

I can only hope that come January, my friend's puppies are able to find good homes with stable people ready for their lifelong commitment and that by summer, the puppies don't join the ranks of animals facing “the tragedy of death.”

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell  is a freelance writer whose work appears frequently in the Neighborhood News.

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