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We’ve come a long way in assuring good care for domestic animals. Why are municipal bylaws so very far behind?

In days not that long past, most animals were considered property over which owners had complete discretion to treat as they might, with impunity. Horror stories ensued. Many stories have changed dramatically for the better, in no small part due to recognition of animals as sentient beings deserving of some rights, and the animal welfare movement, which has worked tirelessly to ensure improvements in how humans treat domestic animals.(The “animal welfare” movement is completely different from the more fringe “animal rights” movement, which objects to animals as pets or food.) Animal welfare advocates are about ensuring there are laws against leaving dogs or other pets in vehicles in summer, forbidding dogs being chained outdoors indefinitely, banning the declawing of cats, and otherwise lobbying for legislated acceptable living conditions for pets and livestock. Pets are now widely considered to be family members by many—even generating custody battles in the courts.

These changes for the better, however, are in stark contrast to bylaws covering animal control in Atlantic Canada, many of which read like something from the 19th century. For instance, an animal found wandering or running at large will be held by the local animal control pound for X days, and if the owner doesn’t claim that animal by the end of X days, the animal can be “destroyed.”

“Destroyed”—like an unwanted piece of furniture or a cast-off pair of jeans. Some bylaws seek to mollify the statement with “put to sleep” or “euthanized”, but the end result is the same—a living, breathing, healthy animal, through no fault of its own, will be put to death. In some municipalities, bylaws still state that if an animal is caught or reported as running at large three times the animal will be seized and killed—why? Surely the owner is at fault, not the animal. Municipal bylaws normally call for nominal fines. Why is this one so dramatically severe? What is the emotional impact on children whose beloved pet is seized and killed by the local government? Pet owners complain that municipal councillors tend to appear ill-informed on domestic animal issues. Debates on how to handle cats and chickens in urban settings habitually offer fodder for humiliating jokes.

Councils are often accused of appearing anti-dog. A recent update of Halifax’s municipal dog bylaw had pet owners up in arms. Also in Nova Scotia, the municipality of Colchester was roundly condemned for trying to outlaw dog breeders and boarding kennels within its boundaries. (Colchester is among those outmoded municipalities where the bylaw says they may kill dogs if owners allow them to run at large). Why are municipal bylaws regarding animals so archaic? Why not simply fine the owner? For an unclaimed animal, why not make sure it’s healthy and adopt it out to a responsible pet owner?

Conversely, there are people who ask their local veterinarians to euthanize a healthy pet as a matter of “convenience euthanasia”. Perhaps there’s a new baby in the family, or an aging owner can no longer care for the animal. Perhaps the pet has issues with toileting, or other behavioural challenges.

Whether it’s an owner wishing to end the life of a perfectly healthy pet, or a municipality that wants a perfectly healthy animal killed because it crossed an invisible property line, how can these sorts of cases be alleviated? Where do veterinarians stand on the issue of convenience euthanasia? What can pet owners do to help reduce stray animal populations?

A veterinarian’s choice

Ethics and codes of conduct for veterinarians in Canada are overseen by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, (CVMA)which doesn’t take a stand or have a bylaw against convenience euthanasia, or ‘healthy euthanasia’ in their constitution. They say: “euthanasia is not desirable as a sole means of population control, but [the CVMA] recognizes that euthanasia is still necessary for unwanted animals that cannot be placed in new homes.” The CVMA encourages veterinarians, animal control officials and shelters to work together to ensure whenever euthanasia is required, humane and optimal methods are used.

The consensus from various provincial veterinarian associations, as well as practitioners in the United Kingdom and the United States, is that choosing to offer convenience euthanasia is left up to individual veterinarians, who in turn have to juggle demands of animal control officers and client needs.

Humane Canada, best known as the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, is the national organization of SPCAs and humane societies in Canada. They are a voice for animal welfare in the country, dedicated to ending animal cruelty and improving care and treatment of all animals. Like veterinary associations, they accept that humanely administered euthanasia is required for animals that are seriously ill or injured or exhibiting behaviours that pose danger to the public. They don’t specifically object to convenience euthanasia and acknowledge that sometimes shelters have too many animals and can’t accept more.

In their report, Animal Shelter Statistics 2015, Humane Canada concluded that fewer animals were euthanized in 2015 than in previous years. Still, the numbers are staggering—2,820 dogs and 15,341 cats (there is no provincial breakdown). It is encouraging, however, to note that from a high of more than 50 per cent of cats euthanized in 2008, about 20 per cent of pound cats were euthanized in 2015; for dogs, the shift was less dramatic, from about 20 per cent in 2008 to slightly more than 10 per cent. Humane Canada notes, “the situation is improving for cats; concerted efforts to address cat overpopulation are producing favourable results.”

Nicole Jewett is a veterinarian in the Fredericton/Oromocto area of New Brunswick and also deputy registrar of the New Brunswick Veterinary Medicine Association (NBVMA). She says, “There’s nothing specific in our bylaws about forbidding convenience euthanasia; it’s at the discretion of each vet, but most will not put an animal down because it was at the pound or because a client wants it done for no valid reason.” She has refused the service to clients, offering them alternative options to putting down a healthy animal.

It’s not always a cut and dried situation when a client requests convenience euthanasia. Dr. Jewett continues, “Sometimes, clients feel they have no choice but to have their dog or cat euthanized—the client had a life situation change and cannot find someone to take their pet, and they’re overwhelmed. If the animal is healthy and of good nature, we can place it in a foster or rescue situation and adopt it out.” Unless the animal poses a threat to humans (a vicious dog or cat), most will do what they can to find a new home. 

In New Brunswick, dog control is managed by the provincial SPCA, also the umbrella organization for the 10 regional or municipal societies in the province. The NBSPCA doesn’t maintain pounds or shelters, but regional branches do. It is from these branches that animals can be adopted out if unclaimed by an owner.

Hugh Chisholm is a retired veterinarian in Halifax and founding owner of the Atlantic Cat Hospital. He says, “When I first started practising as a vet, convenience euthanasia was more prevalent than today, although I never allowed it in my practice. A lot of clinics and vets don’t offer it; people have more options than they used to. Animal shelters are doing a terrific job and it’s much easier to tell a client to take the animal to a shelter or call a rescue group.” Dr. Chisholm acknowledges that in rural locations, there may not be local shelters as alternative options and he can see how a vet might be talked into euthanizing an animal—especially if the owner says otherwise they’ll do it themselves or abandon the animal. He also believes the sort that would abandon the animal is probably unlikely to go to a vet in the first place.

Still, he is succinctly adamant. “There are always better options than killing a healthy animal.”

Rescue not a race

Sandra Flemming is the provincial director of animal care with Nova Scotia’s SPCA, which oversees all the shelters in the province. The organization provides pound or enforcement services—sometimes both—for some municipalities, whether it be to pick up animals at large or hold them in their shelters. Although she states that animal welfare in general in Canada is not well regulated, it’s come a long way in recent years. The provincial SPCA operates no-kill shelters, and despite what is written in some municipal bylaws, “Usually in the contract it is written out that if no one comes forward to claim the animal, after 72 hours the animal becomes the property of the SPCA.” The animal is then assessed for medical, physical and behavioural issues, and if suitable is put up for adoption. Flemming also says that some municipalities do their own enforcement but will contact one of the provincial shelters to see if the animal can be accepted.

If an animal is deemed aggressive, the SPCA won’t accept it into their shelter and will recommend it be euthanized. “We couldn’t offer up an animal for adoption without full disclosure, and no one would want to adopt such an animal,” Flemming says. “Other than that, if we are called to accept one, we’ll do it even if we have to transport it to a shelter elsewhere in the province because the nearest one is full.” The SPCA shelters are networked and know each one’s holding and staff capacity is, in terms of behaviour or training issues. Occasionally they call on other animal shelters outside their own for dog management, but for the most part are able to handle to handle intake of dogs.

Annette Armitage is the president of Animal Rescue Coalitions (ARC), a registered charity and the oldest rescue in Nova Scotia. ARC isn’t a shelter—they foster out the animals they take in among a network of homes around the province. They primarily act as a dog foster, taking in animals from pounds once the hold period is up and the animal has remained unclaimed. If contacted about a cat, they call a trusted, reliable cat rescue such as SpayDay or Purple Cat and get the animal fostered through the dedicated rescue.

Armitage reiterates the voice of vets and humane societies, that there is no need for convenience euthanasia. “If you don’t want your animal, contact your vet or a rescue,” she says. “Don’t just let it go because you don’t want it anymore,” even if the animal has issues; there are plenty of people looking for a pet and so many animals that will make an awesome addition to a family. “We have good training people and we work completely on positive training methods to rehabilitate an animal with behaviour issues,” she says, adding, “Animal rescue is not a race—we’re about quality, not quantity, and may have an animal in foster for a few months before adopting it out.”

“Because neglect isn’t working”

In many cases, municipal bylaws regarding animals running at large refer to dogs only. Despite cats being the most popular pet in Canada, many municipalities don’t have bylaws about cats—in part because they don’t have funding or ability to deal with exploding feral cat populations, and usually control officers don’t pick up cats unless they are gravely injured. While we don’t normally see packs of feral dogs in our communities, there are certainly issues with feral cat populations throughout Atlantic Canada. These animals perform valuable rodent population control but get incorrectly blamed for massive numbers of bird kills. Feral cats also can spread diseases like feline leukemia, including to domestic house cats allowed to wander outside.

Linda Felix heads up SpayDay HRM in Halifax, a registered not-for-profit that operates a Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) program for feral cats. Since starting in 2011, she has looked after more than 3,100 cats, including rescues, low-income family pets, and feral cats. The organization partners with SPCA to run the TNR program, which is dramatically curbing feral cats in the city. For those critical of such programs, Linda says, “Any initiative offering spay/neuter services reduces cat populations which reduces transmission of disease…many of which are passed by cat procreation, fighting for females and territory. When a colony of cats cannot grow, the population will gradually decline. Because neglect isn’t working.”

Three of the volunteers behind SpayDay HRM: Cathy MacKenzie, Cindy Murphy, and the chair of the rescue, Linda Felix. SpayDay advocates for spaying and neutering of feral cats plus helps low-income families wishing to spay or neuter their cat.

How pet owners can help

  • Spay and neuter your pet. If you’re adopting from a rescue or shelter, the animal may already be neutered as a condition of adopting (which is reflected in the adoption fee that includes vaccinations, microchipping and spaying or neutering.) If you purchase or otherwise receive a pet that isn’t neutered, make an appointment to have the surgery done.
  • Have your dog or cat microchipped so that in the event it gets lost, it can be identified and returned safely to you.
  • Control pet behaviour in the yard. Teach your dog to stay on your property—some swear by large fenced runs, some by products like radio-controlled fencing, others either walk their dog on a leash or have it outside on a lead for supervised periods of time. In the case of cats, most rescues recommend keeping Fluffy indoors, or else have a ‘catio’—a dedicated, enclosed cat area where they can enjoy being outdoors but are safe from predators and traffic and cannot chase birds.
  • Support your local shelter or rescue. Although some organizations may receive occasional grants, most rely on donations via appeals or fundraising events to keep them going. Most do not receive government funding, so if you can donate money or supplies, it’s always more than welcome.
  • Consider volunteering with a rescue or shelter. Perhaps you can give a few hours a month to work in the shelter, or can foster a dog or cat (or cat and kittens!), or are skilled at training dogs, especially those with behavioural issues.
  • If your situation changes and you can no longer keep your pet, check with the organization you adopted from. The SPCA in Nova Scotia will take back any animal that has been adopted from their organization, no questions asked. If your animal is elderly and you can’t afford veterinary care, consult your local shelter, vet or SPCA—there are palliative programs around the region where a senior dog or cat can live out its life in dignity in a loving home, and care costs are covered by the rescue organization involved.
  • Lobby your municipal government for more humane bylaws. One municipal councillor we spoke to had no idea that the bylaw in her community called for animals to be killed, not adopted out. 

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