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Panorama: "Enough is enough" says Battersea Dogs & Cats Home as it has to put down a record number of dogs

Last year a third of all dogs taken in by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home were put down, BBC One's Panorama can exclusively reveal.

In a special investigation to be aired tonight, reporter Tom Heap finds that irresponsible dog ownership is so out of hand that dog pounds and pet rescues across the UK are overflowing with strays. This crisis is being fuelled by the street fashion for aggressive looking dogs.

The problem is now so acute that the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and the Metropolitan Police in London want the Government and local governments to act.

As Battersea Dogs & Cats Home celebrates its 150th anniversary, it's giving Panorama unprecedented access to reveal the pressures they are facing.

Taking in lost and unwanted animals cost Battersea Dogs & Cats Home £11 million in 2009. The rescue charity has an open intake policy, which means they aim to never turn a dog away. During this period the charity took in 7,866 dogs explains Scott Craddock, Director of Operations Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

He says: "Last year we reunited over 2,000 dogs to members of the public, those dogs which came in as strays. We re-homed 3,000 dogs, just over. But, sadly, over 2,800 dogs were put to sleep."

That's around a third of the total number of dogs Battersea Dogs & Cats Home took in last year.

Of the 2,815 that were put down, 1,931 of them were healthy but were judged to be too much of a risk to be offered to the public for re-homing because of their temperament or behaviour.

By far the biggest single group of dogs coming into Battersea Dogs & Cats Home are bull breeds and bull breed crosses – many of them Staffordshire Bull Terrier types known as "Staffies". They account for more than half of the home's longer term residents.

Hard-looking dogs have become a status symbol on the street. And the Staffordshire bull terrier, once highly regarded as a loyal family pet, has become a casualty of that fashion.

"In 1996 we took 396 Staffordshire bull terriers. Last year we took 3,600, so that is an 850 per cent increase over that time span and for us that's a huge problem – we can't actually kennel these dogs with other dogs in many cases. They have to be given an individual kennel. So that has a huge impact on kennel space at the home," says Scott Craddock.

"Battersea is mopping up a lot of the problems that are happening outside of the home. Big society problems, to such an extent that we feel it is time to say enough is enough," he adds.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home takes strays from 31 different London Boroughs and also from a number of outlying local authorities. But to find out about how widespread the problem is across the UK, Panorama sent freedom of information requests to all 445 local authorities in the UK which deal with stray dogs.

It's the law to keep the figures and respond promptly – but though given ample time, barely over half the councils answered all our questions. 82 didn't reply at all.

Just using figures from the full responses, there were over 69,000 stray dogs across the UK last year. Just over 6,000 were destroyed. So the complete picture will be much worse.

The charity Dogs Trust published a survey in 2009 which put the number of strays at nearly 110,000, an increase of more than 10 per cent. They estimate a stray dog is put down every hour.

The UK's biggest animal charity, the RSPCA, is also feeling the pressure says Tim Wass, the Chief Officer of the RSPCA inspectorate.

He says: "Last year, 2009, we killed 533 healthy dogs. And you'll notice I used the word kill there, rather than put to sleep or humanely euthanize. There's been enough euphemism, we really need to tell it how it is and we really need to start doing something to prevent it having to happen in the future."

The RSPCA has now chosen a controversial path. Unlike Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, it no longer accepts unwanted dogs from the public.

Tim Wass says: "We're saying to members of the public that rather than be a completely open door to every single request for the RSPCA to take an animal in we'll stop, we'll question and we may push back a little.

"We want to be able to make sure that the worst cases can find accommodation in our animal centres. And at the moment, on too many occasions they can't because we've said yes to a member of the public who's brought the animal in because it doesn't match the furniture or the curtains."

Irresponsible dog ownership is now so severe that the RSPCA, Battersea and the Metropolitan Police in London are calling on the Government to act.

Scott Craddock says: "I think the most important thing we would like to see is some kind of traceability back from the dog to someone at the other end of the lead."

Ian McParland, Head of the London Metropolitan Police Status Dogs Unit, says: "We've said licensing is a way forward – to actually have an annual licence for dogs where dogs are micro-chipped and the owners are required every year to keep the details up to date."

The Government is still considering what to do about irresponsible owners.

Lord Henley, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at DEFRA, says: "I am not convinced that a dog licence is the way forward but, again, I am open-minded. I will look at the evidence.

"We've had licences in the past and we all know what's happened to that, a great deal of non-compliance; in fact I think by the end of the old dog licence very few people were taking them out at all. What are you going to achieve if all you've done is taxed the responsible owner and not caught the irresponsible owner?"

Notes to Editors

Panorama: Britain's Unwanted Pets is broadcast on Monday 2 August 2010 at 8:30pm.

PH

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