Pet Abandonment – The Dark Underbelly of Travel
Every year, thousands of animals are abandoned in shelters, on the streets, and along highways, or even euthanized as people leave for summer vacation. Yes, people abandon pets when they don’t fit with travel plans. And we are not talking about a handful of pets or just one country.
As you can see, we are talking about millions of pets worldwide. It’s an epidemic that, sadly, even with amazing campaigns, grows every year. We are regressing, not progressing.
The statistics for Europe are particularly hard for us to comprehend because, from our personal experience, Europe far outranks other parts of the West for inclusiveness of dogs. In countries such as Italy and France, shops and restaurants welcome four-legged patrons with the same enthusiasm as they do human ones, even indoors.
Closer to home, it’s a bit hit-and-miss as you travel across North America. Accommodations and dog parks are available but you will still struggle to truly travel with your pet. There is a reluctance to grant dogs access to places serving food, to museums, or even on hiking trails and beaches. Perhaps because until recently, dogs in North America had to earn their keep; they were not pets or truly socialized unlike their European counterparts.
But there is a growing trend of dog-lovers embracing dogs as even more than pets for companionship: some dogs are exercise partners, therapists, health care aids, and even surrogate children. The pet industry is growing with the trend and it’s creeping into tourism. Today, you can find pet-friendly accommodations, doggy daycare, and pet walking services, not to mention insurance, numerous organized dog activities, specialized care, pet fairs, and more.
Yet, even if we are more inclusive, there is still a lot of work to be done. Canada, for example, only recently started changing laws to grant dogs and other pets the status of “sentient beings” rather than “property,” no different than a chair. With that change comes a different way to prosecute abuse.
But we are in no position to cast the first stone at the rest of the globe. The statistics speak volumes. We can’t lecture, but we can lead by example.
It’s challenging to advocate for including a pet in your vacation plans when there are stigmas and obstacles that may force you to change your plans: things like quarantines, fees, excessive paperwork, and bylaws. Murky waters indeed.
Surprisingly though, those are not the topics we’ve had to be most familiar with. There are government agencies that can help, not to mention bloggers like ourselves. If you are going to be an ambassador for travelling with a dog, a voice against pet abandonment – the dark underbelly of travel – and thus be an advocate, these are the top five things you should be prepared to discuss.
1) Pets versus Livestock
Like many countries, China sees dogs as livestock. But before you sound the alarm, remember the next time you eat a steak that in India, cows are sacred. It’s a matter of perspective. Dog meat, known as gou rou, is served in more than 120 restaurants in Beijing alone. In China, having a dog as a pet has only recently become fashionable and only among the upper and middle classes where the influences of globalization are more likely to be felt.
Sadly, China is also home to one of the most horrific festivals, the Yulin Dog Meat festival. It is so awful that we can’t even bring ourselves to give you a link to information about it. This festival and its associated poor treatment of dogs is one reason why we have not travelled to China. Just as some will boycott places for poor human rights policies, the same can be done for animal rights issues.
Interestingly, China honours the dog as one of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac, and the second day of the Chinese new year is considered to be the birthday of all dogs. On that day, dogs receive extra food and kindness. But dogs, just like the ox, rabbit, pig and chicken are still seen as livestock. In China, the Panda is far more revered than the dog.
2) Festivals and Events
Tihar, the five-day Hindu festival of lights in Nepal, pays tribute to the dog on the second day of the festival. Legend holds that dogs guard the door to heaven and are the companion of the god of death. To honour the dog, festival-goers place garlands around the necks of all dogs and paint a large tika (red mark) on their foreheads. Dogs receive a special meal and prayers so that they may protect the homes of those on earth just as they guard the gates of heaven.
Vets Without Borders has gone in after the festival to use this time for a yearly health check, spay and neuter exercise, helping to prevent the festival from being a last meal for many. This kind of work is what makes this organization the one we partnered with. A portion of the profits made from our books is donated to Vets Without Borders. The World Animal Protection Canada has done some amazing work in Nepal as well, providing much needed assistance after the mud slides.
Whenever we travel to a country, if we find out there is an event that is taking place in a town on our route, we will do our best to attend. Like the Pawty we went to in Florence, Italy, which raised funds for abandoned pets looking for a new home.
3) Safety First
In many parts of the world, street dogs have become a true problem. It is important to remember that at some time, the “founding” dog once lived with people but was abandoned or accidentally released. Humans caused the issue. These dogs then fend for themselves. As natural scavengers, these animals tend to live off scraps and garbage. Many are free-roaming pets to a population of slum and street-dwellers.
Sadly, although all warm-blooded animals can get and transmit rabies, dogs are one of the most common carriers. India, for example, has the highest number of human rabies deaths in the world with an estimated 35,000 per annum. So it is no surprise that for those who live with this threat on a daily basis, dogs are to be feared. Until such time as spaying and neutering stabilize the dog population, vaccinations get disease transmission under control, and education has been provided, a healthy fear of dogs may mean survival.
I have seen enormous wild dog packs near Miami in the United States, so this issue is a global one. It’s something you need to know how to manage if travelling with your own dog.
4) Impeded by Religion
Places of worship are usually off limits to dogs. Italy has proved to be the most lenient so far, with those who worked the sites we visited being in cahoots, allowing me to enter discreetly in my bag.
And there was that one time in Greece when an Orthodox priest allowed me OFF-LEASH into the church. That was an amazing moment that was followed by a lovely chat with the man about dogs being one of god’s best creatures. They are two exceptions in six years.
And although no statements against dogs are found in the Quran, prohibitions abound in the various collections of traditions (hadith). These traditions are a primary foundation of Islamic theology and are the basis of many Islamic laws. Muslims generally consider dogs to be ritually unclean, but interestingly enough, Islamic rulings state that dogs are to be treated kindly or else freed.
This dichotomy is seen in many Islamic practices. For example, in Sunni tradition, it is said that the prophet Muhammad didn’t like dogs. Yet, the historian William Montgomery Watt states that “Muhammad’s kindness to animals was remarkable for the social context of his upbringing.” Watt cites an instance of Muhammed posting sentries to ensure that a female dog with newborn puppies was not disturbed by the army traveling to Mecca in the year 630. In some traditions, the company of dogs voids a portion of a Muslim’s good deeds. Yet, outside the ritual discourse, dogs are often portrayed in literature as a symbol of highly esteemed virtues such as self-sacrifice and loyalty.
Things are slowly changing and the practices in the West are having an influence. Some travelling friends have seen Qataris with large German Shepherds as pets. In addition, Muslims living outside of the Arab nations are breaking away from the traditional belief about dogs. This site written by a Muslim veterinarian provides an excellent overview on dogs and Islam.
5) Laws and Bylaws
When a location peaks our curiosity, the first thing we do is check to see if there is still a quarantine. If there is, we drop the idea of visiting that location right away. It’s a little frustrating since rabies does have a proven and effective vaccine. Plus, titer tests can prove that the vaccine is in the blood. Many of the quarantine laws are outdated, having been put in place in the 1800s or earlier. But the world is a big place, so the quarantine problem has yet to annoy us too much. If dogs are not welcome, we simply don’t go.
Then we check to see what vaccines other than rabies may be needed and what paperwork we’ll need to tackle. Then we look to see if an airline that does carry pets in cabin goes where we want to travel, and finally, we book a pet-friendly apartment.
Don’t be surprised if you get asked about the hoops you had to jump through—not just by those back home but, interestingly, also by the locals, who may be surprised it was possible at all.
Is one culture’s treatment of the dog right and another’s wrong? One could debate the issue at length. One could argue that adopting the philosophy of a dog as a family member has pushed things too far, creating a population of anxiety-driven, “armpit piranhas,” and aggressive little “fur gods.”
But what is clear, and must become standard, is a cross-cultural agreement that dogs, as well as all animals, whatever their end purpose, deserve to be treated with respect and compassion while under our care. To this end, I want to take a moment to applaud organizations such as World Animal Protection Canada, the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, Vets Beyond Borders and many local animal shelters around the world. These organizations work tirelessly to educate and share these concepts of compassion toward all animals.
Let us all be leaders and a part of that progress. Is it not a pet-friendly world? Become an ambassador, walk the talk, push for changes big and small. Let us be the change.
(Note: This is a re-worked and updated post originally drafted in 2011)