How many pets?
The recent controversy over a Quezon City ordinance limiting the number of household pets highlighted an example of good intentions gone awry. The ordinance, now shelved following protests from the public, would have limited the number of pets to four per household.
I was initially surprised that the loudest voices of protest came from animal welfare groups, which, I thought, would have welcomed the ordinance. The bot tom line is that too many pets can cause problems not just for animals but also for humans.
I understand now that the animal welfare groups were unhappy over the lack of consultation, and are also convinced that more veterinary services, including “family planning” measures for the animals, would be more effective.
Let’s run through the issue of animal overpopulation, starting with the extent of the problem.
Just last month at the University of the Philippines Diliman, we had an “Oplan Alis Rabies” involving free antirabies vaccination for dogs on campus. A total of—can you imagine?—3,215 dogs were vaccinated.
Yet, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Quezon City veterinarians are still worried. Given that the campus has some 70,000 residents, the estimate is that there are probably about 7,000 dogs, which means we’ve vaccinated only about half.
I actually think the estimate of 7,000 might be low because I go around the area quite frequently and I have seen that, in the densely-packed, low-income communities, each household has more than one dog. I would say that on average it’s about four dogs in each household, with even more cats, mostly half-wild. I passed one house with an elderly woman once, and I counted, with one quick look, three dogs and six cats in her living room, which could not be bigger than 10 square meters.
Besides the dogs and cats, there are all kinds of other alaga (Filipino for pets), including fighting cocks. You don’t see the birds as much in Diliman, especially now that the administration has banned them after we found out that cockfights, with betting, were being held. But you sure will hear them at the most unholy hours of the night and early morning.
Having so many animals, human and nonhuman, in cramped spaces is unhealthy for all concerned. Dogs and cats are very territorial so when you put too many together, they become high-strung. The alpha animals are aggressive, while the submissive ones are always on alert, fearful of being attacked.
For humans, too many pets cause problems, foremost of which is hygiene. Even if you walk the dogs every day you will still get urine and feces in the house. The territorial angle comes in as well, with the males tending to mark their spaces inside the house by peeing and pooing (sorry for the baby language) in every corner and on every piece of furniture.
I’m not going to ask you to imagine the 7,000 dogs in UP Diliman; instead, imagine what they smell like, together with their feces and urine.
There are also diseases and pests that can be transmitted from the pets to their humans. These range from hookworms and roundworms (bulate in Filipino) to toxoplasmosis from cats, which can cause fetal abnormalities if pregnant owners handle infected cat feces. Then there’s the dreaded rabies; all you need is for one rabid dog to go on a rampage infecting other dogs, which then turn on humans.
There are other health problems like flea and tick bites, and allergies to dog and cat fur.
The problem is that in many households, rich or poor, the humans can’t control their animals. In some households dogs are brought in as guards, and become so fierce that even the owner can’t hold them. The dogs go unbathed, become malnourished, and get all kinds of diseases.
In recent years there has been a proliferation of what Americans call “puppy mills” or “puppy factories,” houses where dogs are bred for selling. I’ve seen this even in low-income communities—lots of dogs and puppies being kept in tiny cages almost like poultry.
But even in middle- and high-income communities, these puppy mills can be problematic. We’re talking again about hygiene problems… and what Americans call “quality of life crimes,” with all those dogs keeping neighbors awake through the night with their noise.
So, if we don’t limit pet ownership, what are the options?
The animal welfare groups say we need more affordable veterinary services, and I agree. But this is easier said than done. Just organizing the rabies vaccination in UP Diliman meant coordination with the College of Veterinary Medicine, the city government and the Bureau of Animal Industry, as well as with Rotary International and Beta Sigma fraternity, all to mobilize and support vaccinators. For the dogs, there were vaccination certificates, and collars. I’m saying thanks to all of them, and especially to Dr. Teodulo Topacio Jr., who was my professor in vet school and who, even in his 80s, still organizes these campaigns.
Besides the rabies vaccination, we are looking into the sterilization of dogs and cats. The procedures are called spaying and neutering for females and males, respectively. Spayed and neutered animals are actually healthier and live longer, not just because the females don’t have to keep getting pregnant but also because the males tend not to stray away from the house looking for females and are also less aggressive toward other males.
The Quezon City government is drafting a Veterinary Code, and this time doing this more carefully, with more sensitivity to public opinion. But apart from legislation, we need to continue educating the public on responsible pet ownership, one that tackles vaccination, spaying and neutering, proper nutrition, disposing of waste, and deciding on the right number of pets at home. The arguments for and against limiting the number of pets in households will be similar to those you hear for family planning with humans, one of which is “kung ano ang kaya” (what you can bear or afford). But just what is “kaya”?
There are all kinds of factors that go into determining what is just right, including the demographics of your family as well as the personalities of particular dog and cat breeds. Elderly people, for example, should keep pets to a minimum, size-wise and numbers-wise (one pet would be perfect). I’ve heard older people talking about the problems of caring for a geriatric dog, and of the unbearable grief that comes when a pet dies.
Before I had children I had no problems with as many as four dogs, all small breeds. But when the kids started arriving, it became different. You can’t chase after several kids and dogs at the same time, or worry about a high-strung dog biting the children. Now I only have one dog, a medium-sized one that looks like a Canaan dog from the Bible but is really an Aspin (asong pinoy), amiable and easy with kids. As Aspin go, he’s fairly low-maintenance but still requires good nutrition, bathing and grooming (he stays inside the house a lot, which can mean a doggie-smelling home), vaccinations, exercise … and here’s the baseline for determining how many pets you can take: A lot of love.
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