Sterilized stray dogs in Bucharest. Photo:Columbo222/wikipedia.

Features Post-Soviet Dilemma: Increased number of stray dogs

Many postcommunist countries have large numbers of stray dogs. In several localitites in Russia poisoned meat has been put out to keep the number of strays down. Before major events, such as the Winter olympics in Sochi, mass culling has been announced. Dog rights activists rather suggest sterilization programs and animal shelters.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds 1, 2014 pp 56-57.
Published on on april 30, 2014

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Many postcommunist countries – Russia, Bulgaria, and Romania – have large numbers of stray dogs. Various estimates have been made on the exact figures: the number of stray dogs in Bucharest, for example, is said to be 65,000. Stray dogs reproduce rapidly and pose a significant threat to human health through their role as vectors of diseases such as rabies. Each year, the anti-rabies center of the Bucharest Institute for Infectious Diseases vaccinates about 15,000 people against rabies as a result of their having been bitten by dogs. The stray dogs may cause other problems, too: they may be responsible for damage of property and livestock, for deposition of excreta near or in areas inhabited by people, and so on.

In September, 2013, a 4-year-old Romanian boy died after being attacked by a dog. After the incident, Romania adopted a new law that allows dogs in custody to be killed after 14 days if an owner has not come forward. Previously, it was only sick dogs that were put to sleep. The new law was met with resistance and indignation, in particular among dog rights activists in northern and western Europe.

There are other, more effective methods for reducing the number of stray dogs, the activists claimed. Holland is often mentioned in this context as an example of where it was possible to reduce the number of stray dogs with gentler, long-term methods. Sterilization is an important measure, relocation another. Education of owners and measures to manage the dog population as a whole is also of importance. Sterilization programs for reducing the number of stray dogs have now been adopted in several Romanian cities.

In preparation for the 2012 UEFA European Championship, there were plans in Ukraine to mass slaughter strays. Instead, after protests from activists, especially those from outside the country, stricter animal husbandry laws were adopted, and in a few cities – Kyiv, Odessa, and Lviv – sterilization programs were introduced with support from NGOs in Western Europe.

In Russia, the methods for keeping the number of stray dogs down is determined at the local level. In several localities, poisoned meat has been put out as a cheap and quick way to reduce the number of stray dogs and cats. This is not, as mentioned above, the internationally recommended method. It causes suffering, risks harming pets – as well as people – and for that matter is not considered particularly effective in the long run.

In preparation for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there was a desire to rid the city of stray dogs. Mass culling was announced, and during the fall, approximately 300 dogs per month appear to have been slaughtered. Sharp protests were nonetheless heard. A Russian businessman stepped in and became the savior of the remaining strays. His deed is described as follows in The New York Times:

A dog shelter backed by a Russian billionaire is engaged in a frantic last-ditch effort to save hundreds of strays facing a death sentence before the Winter Olympics begin here. […]
A “dog rescue” golf cart is now scouring the Olympic campus, picking up the animals and delivering them to the shelter, which is really an outdoor shantytown of doghouses on a hill on the outskirts of the city. It is being called PovoDog, a play on the Russian word povodok, which means leash.

American hockey players got involved by finding new homes for the dogs. The Daily Mail reports:

David Backes went to Sochi hoping to bring home a gold medal with the US hockey team. Instead, the St. Louis Blues’ captain brought back a couple of stray puppies. […]
Backes said he and his wife did not originally intend to bring any animals back. They were hoping to create awareness about shelters that have been set up in Sochi to help hundreds of stray dogs that received international media attention.

Backes has now created a foundation, Athletes for Animals, that will help find new homes for the strays in Sochi.

But the problem of stray dogs is not just one faced by organizers of major events. In central Moscow, there are reportedly some 35,000 stray dogs. They are said to have adapted to the urban environment in a startling way. Andrey Poyarkov, a biologist who has studied Moscow’s strays for 30 years tells ABC News:

The street is tough and it is survival of the fittest. These clever dogs know people much better than people know them. Taking the subway is just one of many tactics the strays have come up with for surviving in the manmade wilderness around them.

Moscow’s strays have also been observed obeying traffic lights, says Poyarkov’s graduate student, Alexei Vereshchagin. He and Poyarkov report that the strays have developed a variety of techniques for hunting food in the wild metropolis. Sometimes a pack will send out a smaller, cuter member apparently realizing it will be more successful at begging than its bigger, less attractive counterparts.

The survival instinct is strong, and the dogs are adaptable. Therefore, they survive and rapidly increase in number.

So why has the number of stray dogs increased so sharply in Russia and Eastern Europe since the transition to a market economy? Often mentioned explanation is that mass pet abandonment was triggered by economic hardship in the post-Soviet Russia. A theory proposed by Viktoriya Guseva at the University of Colorado is that it is about a lack of protection of private property. She argues that:

“Abandonment was made possible by the lack of pet ownership regulations. Therefore, the lack of pet ownership laws and regulations were the cause of the stray dog population increase.”1

Guseva argues further that protection of private property guarantees ownership exclusivity, even when it comes to dogs. Regulations as dog registration and licensing, humane dog control practices and animal shelters thus play a key role in the stray dog population management and reduction of its size. Stray dogs as a group consist of owned dogs that are lost or abandoned, but also of dogs born roaming. According to WHO 75% of all dogs in the world are strays. ≈


1  Viktoriya Guseva, Dog ownership through the Eyes of a Stray Dog: Property Rights and the Stray Dog Population (University of Colorado: Boulder, 2013) 17.


I. Sternheim, How Holland Became Free of Stray Dogs, Dogsearch, (Amsterdam, Isis, 2012).

L. Tasker, Stray Animal Control Practices (Europe), (WSPA and RSPCA, 2007).

Viktoriya Guseva, Dog ownership through the Eyes of a Stray Dog: Property Rights and the Stray Dog Population (University of Colorado: Boulder, 2013).

Eva Voslarva and Annamaria Passantino, “Stray dog and cat laws and enforcement in Czech Republic and in Italy” Ann lst Super Sanita Vol 48:1 (2012) 97–104.

V. Carporale, B. Alessandrini, P. Dalla Villa & S. Del Papa, “Global perspectives on animal welfare: Europe”, Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz. 24:2 (2005) 567-577.