They are everywhere – cowering under parked cars, starring out of dilapidated abandoned buildings, slinking through weeds at derelict sites or curled up in some inconspicuous places, too weak to move.

They are the homeless strays on our streets. Their emaciated bodies, with ribs protruding, bear the scars and raw wounds from past and recent attacks, signs of their suffering.

Only a few are fortunate enough to have selfless dedicated feeders who keep an eye on them, and provide them with food, water, spaying/neutering and emergency medical care. The rest are left to fend for themselves.

If they don’t starve to death, get hit by cars or die from diseases or injuries, they could be poisoned, tortured, mutilated, scalded with boiling water, tormented by juveniles, attacked by other animals, or killed in other cruel ways.

Society at large either barely takes notice of them or regards them as a nuisance and eyesore that should be removed.

Why are so many homeless dogs and cats? Consider commercial breeders who supply animals to pet stores, and puppy/kitten mills that churn out litter after litter. Many of these dogs and cats would become homeless when their owners turn their backs on them. Or they could be dumped in animal shelters, taking up space that’s meant for rescued strays.

Puppy mills

Puppy mills are places of continuous suffering, where pure breeds are bred solely for money, with no regard for the dog’s welfare. They are kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

These dogs do not receive any affection, exercise, basic grooming, proper veterinary care or adequate food and water. If any at all, water is contaminated with algae, urine and faeces while food is infested with mould and bugs.

To maximise profits, females are bred at every opportunity, with little to no recovery time between litters. When they are physically depleted to the point that they can no longer reproduce, they are discarded. Parents of the adorable puppies in the pet shops are unlikely to make it out of the mills alive – and neither will those born with overt physical defects. Puppies born with genetic diseases and abnormalities are common due to in-breeding, which is prevalent.

Dogs in puppy mills suffer from extreme physical and emotional trauma, as do their puppies, in ways we cannot see. Puppies are frequently separated from their mothers before being weaned. As a result, some do not know how to feed themselves, so they die of starvation.

So when you are thinking of welcoming a dog or cat into your home, please always consider adopting one or two from your local rescue shelter or rescuing and saving one from the streets.

Abandonment

Another major contributor to stray over-population is abandoned pets and unwanted puppies. Pet abandonment is a form of animal cruelty. What could be more damaging than to be removed from the only family they have ever known – the family they love and rely on for protection, affection and everything in between.

Scientific studies show that animals do suffer emotional pain. Anxiety, fright, confusion, grief and loneliness are more difficult to see than scars and emaciated bodies. Emotional harm may ultimately cause more suffering and do more lasting damage than physical abuse.

Beside the emotional toll, physical impact is just as devastating. After years of being provided for, they have become highly inexperienced in sourcing their own food. Many will starve and die from adverse health effects resulting from malnutrition.

Animal shelters

Many owners have the misconception that surrendering their pets to shelters is a more humane option. Local councils have no policy to keep these animals alive. Other shelters, except for “no kill” ones, surrender animals and those brought in are euthanised after a short grace period, to make room for others. Euthanising refers to terminating the suffering of terminally ill or fatally injured animals, yet often these animals are perfectly healthy.

Dogs

Being confined in overcrowded cages takes a toll on animals in shelters. Photo: Filepic

Surrendered pets suffer the same emotional turmoil as abandoned ones. “No kill” shelters are extremely overcrowded, short on funds and staff, and overwhelmed by the daunting task of caring for these animals. Despite the caretakers doing their utmost, animals in shelters basically have to fight to survive. The more submissive ones suffer terribly at the hands of the more aggressive ones.

So, before bringing a pet home, understand the commitment you are making. Think beyond the initial attraction of an adorable puppy or kitten. Keeping a pet is a life-time commitment of pet parenthood.

Life-time commitment

Dogs and cats can live up to 13 to 15 years, some even longer. They are your responsibility. You have to see to their well-being and all their needs because you are their pet parent. That means you cannot go on holiday without making adequate provision for them, or neglect and leave them alone because of work commitment, or move into a condo that bans dogs.

Planning is crucial, especially when getting a dog. Evaluate your lifestyle and living circumstances. Should the dog have a quiet or lively demeanour? Will they face very active or loud children, or need to get along with other pets? Are you away from home a lot?

How much space do you have? Are you willing to share your home with the dog or are you going to shackle it or confine it to a crate? Long-term confinement and restraint can damage their physical and psychological well-being. An otherwise friendly and docile dog, when kept this way, can become neurotic, anxious and aggressive. Welcome pets as family members, not as disposable toys.

Saddest of all abandonments is when owners die without having made arrangements for their furry companions. Often their next of kin are not willing to take responsibility for the pet that is left behind.

Trap, neuter, return

Eradicating animal homelessness is complex. But one proven, humane and effective solution to curtail the stray population, without resorting to killing, is the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) method: The strays are trapped, then spayed or neutered, and finally sent back to the exact location where they were trapped, which is important because here they are familiar with food and water sources and available shelter.

Spaying females, apart from curbing unwanted offspring, also prevents cancer of the reproductive tract, and reduces the prevalence of mammary cancer resulting from going through multi-heat cycles and life-threatening pyometra (infected uterus).

For intact males, they have a higher risk of prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) as well as testicular cancer.

Neutering also prevents males from exhibiting nuisance behaviours such as howling, roaming and aggression.

In six short years, an unspayed dog – producing three litters a year, with an average litter size of four puppies – and her pups can add 67,000 dogs to the population. In seven years, one cat and her offspring can produce 370,000 kittens.

Survival on the street is extremely stressful and exhausting. For their very existence, strays struggle on alone, thirsty, hungry, afraid, and vulnerable; constantly scavenging for scraps and always on the alert for the possibility of danger, with no safe and comfortable place to curl up in for the night.

So the next time you see a stray rummaging for rotting “throwaways” out of a dustbin, awake your conscience from “not my problem” to “how can I help”. Don’t be indifferent or trivialise their suffering. Do good for these animals, so badly let down by mankind. The suffering of stray animals is a shame on humankind. Instead of complaints and expressions of disgust, communities should come together to assist these unfortunate animals.