Detroit's roaming dog story points to growing animal welfare and public health crisis

Without proper care and treatment, companion dogs can become a public health risk. “Post-apocalyptic” was one of the many adjectives used to characterize the city of Detroit last week in an article highlighting the increasing concerns over the city’s roaming dogs.

Estimates as high as 50,000 have been used to describe the number of canines roaming the streets, and stories of dogs attacking city residents, wandering neighborhoods and overrunning empty buildings have been getting attention around the globe.

While articles like this often bring much-needed attention to a city’s conflicts with roaming dogs, the “shock value” can also compound ever-deepening problems.

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What often follows is the promise of a quick-fix, and solutions that are ineffective or even cruel. But the issues in Detroit are familiar to many communities the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) assists around world, and we know there is nothing simple about these problems or what’s needed to resolve them.  

When people are struggling, companion animals often suffer as well. And when animals are suffering, so too does this have an impact on people – whether from nuisance or threatening dog behaviors or from the emotional and psychological stress of witnessing animals which are sick, injured, or cruelly treated.

The stories coming out of Detroit point to a growing animal welfare and public health crisis, and this doesn’t mean the city should stop everything else and focus all efforts on the issue of dogs, but it does mean that dogs need to be part of the larger discussions about fixing what’s been going terribly wrong in the city.

This is not an issue that any one group or individual can solve alone, and collaboration is a key to creating a plan that actually works for the community. 

In urging city officials to take this on I ask them to recognize that dog management needs to be a collaborative effort. This means drawing on community knowledge, capacity and resources from a variety of animal welfare organizations, public health officials, educators, veterinarians, legislators, government officials, academics, the media, and both owners and non-dog owners alike.

Any management plan also needs to focus on bringing an end to the problems in the long-term, not just putting a band-aid on them right now. Detroit is far more than the media has often made it out to be, and this unique city needs an equally unique plan. Any strategy must recognize the significant economic, social, and political challenges in the city, but also the creative, intelligent, committed individuals who want to change it.

A magic “snap of the fingers” can’t even begin to address these issues because these need to be tackled at the root, and there is nothing quick and easy about implementing a management plan that must be permanent.

It’s the city of Detroit that needs to take the first step in solving this issue. They need to commit to the management of the city’s dogs and begin the process of developing a humane, sustainable plan.

A good place for them to start is ICAM’s Humane Dog Population Management Guidance.

We should all rally around Detroit, offer our support and hope for the future, but it’s ultimately city officials that need to recognize roaming dogs as a serious issue and commit to addressing it.

In the meantime, my deep gratitude and respect goes out to those who are doing the best they can to address the myriad of human and animal health concerns in and around the Motor City.

As a former resident of Michigan who came to know Detroit well, I continue to believe in the potential of Detroit to reinvent itself and change course for the better.

For everyone working hard for the people and animals in Detroit - Thank you for all that you do.


For more information on IFAW efforts to help communities with their population management issues, visit our campaign pages.

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Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Jan Hannah, Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Kate Nattrass Atema, Program Director, Community Animal Welfare
Program Director, Community Animal Welfare
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters