CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the great animal welfare success stories of the last half-century is the end of dog overpopulation and wholesale euthanasia in many parts of the United States. After decades of effort, Americans embraced the message of responsible dog ownership in the 1970s and began spaying and neutering their pets, fencing their yards, and keeping their dogs on leashes.
In less than two generations, these practices have produced astounding results. We are caring for more than twice as many dogs today as in the 1970s, yet the number of dogs entering shelters in most of the country is just a fraction of what it was 40 years ago.
That's good news, but progress always carries with it the potential for unintended consequences. In this case, efforts at reducing dog overpopulation have been so successful that in parts of the country there are not enough dogs to meet local demand.
Shady pet dealers operating outside the regulated pet market, as well as retail rescue and shelter operations, are rapidly filling that vacuum in high-demand areas. These groups move dogs from distant states and foreign countries -- and have thereby created a largely unregulated industry that perpetuates the existence of deplorable kennels; a situation that regulated breeders and traditional shelters have worked for decades to eliminate. These practices also raise serious public health concerns.
This is a matter of particular interest in West Virginia and other states where animal shelters do not yet record and report information on the animals they handle. The lack of such information renders a huge part of the pet industry unaccountable, and poses serious problems to both animals and potential owners.
Fueled by wider access to transportation, instant communication, and lax or unenforced laws, moving dogs is faster and easier than ever. Hundreds of organizations -- both legitimate and illegal -- move dogs from the southern United States into the Northeast and other "high-demand" areas each year.
Last year in Colorado, for instance, shelters imported over 12,000 dogs from out of state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 200,000 dogs crossed into the United States from Mexico in 2006 alone.
Taking in thousands of dogs from distant states or foreign countries -- often without vaccinations or health certificates -- is asking for trouble. An infected dog can introduce foreign diseases and parasites -- and thereby endanger local pets, livestock, and even humans. It should be no surprise that cases of heartworm and canine brucellosis are rising in the northern United States, or that many of the recent cases of canine-strain rabies in this country have surfaced in dogs rescued from foreign countries.
There are social and ethical issues to consider, too. The unregulated movement of dogs obscures their origins. Many arise as "castoffs" from illegal, underground breeders -- and thus perpetuate their cruel and illegal operations. Others come from foreign countries where health and welfare standards are nonexistent or much lower than in the United States.