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  • Sophie Messenger

"Who Let the Dogs Out?": The Causes and Effects of the Growing Population of Homeless Dogs



The growing number of homeless dogs has emerged as a global complex problem. In recent years, the population of stray dogs has increased, with the World Health Organization estimating about 200 million homeless dogs globally in 2023. This issue has posed significant challenges for the animals themselves, the environment, and human communities. Not only is this multifaceted problem a matter of public health and safety, but it is also a reflection of broader socio-economic and cultural factors that impact our relationship with these animals.


One major ethical concern contributing to the growing number of stray dogs is the dog fighting industry, a form of underground and illegal activity that pits dogs against each other in brutal combat for the sake of human profit and entertainment. Many of the dogs used in these fights are bred specifically for aggression, brought about by years of abuse and mistreatment. Moreover, dogs that do not perform well in fights or those who are injured are often discarded, if not killed, increasing the amount of homeless dogs. These dogs are mass-bred due to them being viewed as discardable, thus exacerbating the number of stray dogs. This cruel industry is banned to some extent in only 50 countries, and there has been a notable increase in dogfighting in India, Mexico, Japan and parts of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are more than 40,000 people in the U.S. alone involved in organized dogfighting.This so-called “blood-sport”, perpetuates a vicious cycle of animal suffering and abandonment, and it normalizes violence as a form of entertainment.


Another major ethical concern contributing to this overpopulation crisis includes the development of puppy mills. Driven by profit, these commercial breeding facilities churn out large numbers of puppies in deplorable conditions, taking advantage of “trending” dog breeds to maximize their economic gain. There are an estimated 10,000 active puppy mills in the U.S. alone, resulting in the sale of more than 2.6 million puppies each year. Puppy mills have little regard for the health and welfare of the breeding dogs or their offspring, and after dogs can no longer be bred, they are often abandoned or killed. The puppy mill industry cultivates a cycle of suffering for both breeding dogs and their offspring, and promotes the overproduction of these animals, many of which end up homeless.


Irresponsible pet ownership also contributes to the growing displacement of dogs. According to a study at the University of Florida, 2.7 million fewer spay and neuter surgeries were performed in 2020 and 2021, thus increasing the risk of species overpopulation. Homeless animals outnumber homeless people 5 to 1 in the United States and only 10% of dogs find a permanent home. Furthermore, these unplanned litters are often born in unsafe conditions without access to medical care. Puppies born on the streets are more vulnerable to disease, attacks by other animals, harsh weather conditions, and incoming traffic. Human abandonment is another major contributor to the rise in homeless dogs. In the U.S., around 3.9 million dogs are abandoned by their owners or given up to shelters each year. Often propagated by financial hardship, housing issues, animal aggression, or death of the owner, millions of dogs are released into the streets, further endangering their physical health and wellbeing.


In addition to the dangers that the environment poses to homeless dogs, the overpopulation of stray dogs has significant ecological and environmental repercussions. Stray dogs often become opportunistic scavengers, foraging for food in urban and natural environments. This behavior can lead to imbalances in local ecosystems as stray dogs prey on small wildlife, disrupt native plants, and potentially transmit diseases to other animals. Studies have shown that stray dogs have contributed to the extinction of at least eight species of birds. Additionally, a study conducted in more than 30 national parks in Brazil found that 37 native species were affected by the presence of stray dogs. Dogs are also notable carriers of diseases; contact with different species can result in the spread of these diseases, further contributing to a loss of species biodiversity. Furthermore, stray dogs rip open trash bags and urinate and defecate in public places, contributing to pollution and sanitation problems, and leading to increased waste.


The overpopulation of stray dogs poses significant risks to human health, creating a range of concerns that encompass both physical and public health dimensions. Stray dogs can carry and transmit various zoonotic diseases, including rabies, which poses a grave threat to human safety when bites or scratches occur. Exposure to stray dogs is the cause of over 90% of human exposures to rabies and of 99% of human rabies deaths worldwide. Beyond direct health concerns, encounters with stray dogs can lead to injuries. According to the National Library of Medicine, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States alone, and more than 800,000 of these individuals require medical attention. Additionally, the uncontrolled reproduction of stray animals remains one of the most under-recognized factors in the occurrence of road traffic accidents. A study conducted at a tertiary care trauma center in India between June 2019 and March 2020 reported that 69% of cases involving road traffic accidents resulted from collisions with stray dogs. It is important to minimize the risks of human health brought about by the increasing stray dog populations while also addressing the welfare of these animals.

Many countries have implemented laws and regulations aimed at promoting responsible pet ownership and controlling the stray dog population. Some of these measures include mandatory spaying and neutering programs, leash and licensing requirements, and anti-cruelty laws that address the mistreatment and abandonment of dogs. Furthermore, dogfighting is a felony in the United States. Some areas also focus on breeder regulations to ensure that puppies are raised in healthy and humane conditions. In January 2020, it became illegal in Maryland for retail pet stores to sell puppies, following the No More Puppy Mills Act. Additionally, animal control and adoption agencies often work to facilitate adoption and rescue efforts, which can help reduce the number of dogs in shelters and on the streets.


While there is a growing recognition of the importance of addressing the overpopulation of dogs, the effectiveness of these laws and their enforcement can vary widely, and there is an ongoing need for comprehensive and coordinated efforts to ensure the well-being of both dogs and the communities they inhabit. A crucial aspect is strengthening regulations related to commercial breeding operations, like puppy mills. Stricter standards for breeding practices, kennel conditions, and the health and well-being of breeding animals must be implemented. More comprehensive spaying and neutering programs should also be developed, particularly for pets adopted from shelters and rescues, to help control overpopulation. Legislation that incentivizes or mandates these procedures, along with affordable and accessible veterinary services, would be instrumental in managing the stray dog population. In mandating certain vaccinations, legislation can also help to prevent the spread of disease and promote better health of these animals. These measures, when properly enforced, can contribute to a more empathetic and sustainable approach to managing the global issue of homeless dogs.


Reducing the population of stray dogs is a shared responsibility that expands beyond the implementation of legislation: each one of us can make a meaningful difference. By choosing to adopt a pet from a shelter or rescue organization, spaying or neutering our pets, supporting local animal welfare organizations, and educating ourselves, we can facilitate the adoption of stray dogs into loving homes and promote more advocacy for legislation. This will lead to the development of more effective and permanent resolutions to this issue and create a more compassionate world for dogs, thus alleviating their individual suffering and reducing the burden of stray dogs on humans and the environment. It is our responsibility to stand up for these animals and provide a voice through which the social, environmental, and public health disparities surrounding this problem can be amended.


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