Animal rescue volunteers in the UAE say they are battling rising numbers of pets being dumped on streets as owners struggle to support them financially.
The rescue of more than 20 dogs and cats during the July flash floods in Fujairah revealed the plight re-homing centres and animal shelters face as everyday living costs soar.
Pets are often the first casualties of challenging economic times, as some owners turn to money-saving measures to fight the rising costs of food, fuel and bills.
In a trend similar to the fallout from the 2008 global economic crash, animal rescuers in the UAE said pets are being dumped by expatriates who have to leave the country as a result of financial difficulties or sudden unemployment.
While some pets are being turned in to shelters, increasing numbers are being dumped on the streets.
Rescue shelters overrun with strays
At the Stray Dogs Centre in Umm Al Quwain, 852 dogs are currently being sheltered and in need of a new home.
The centre’s founder and manager, Amirah William, is taking in about 10 dogs a week from owners who can no longer afford to keep them or are leaving the country.
“The number of dogs being surrendered has increased,” she said.
“This anomaly has occurred because the topic of surrendering a dog has become desensitised.
“Not all shelters will take dogs that owners want to surrender because it adds an extra pressure to already over-burdened shelters.
“The main factors are the cost of living, cost of relocation, loss of employment and people making decisions based on emotion, without fully understanding the responsibility of pet ownership."
According to the Central Bank, inflation is projected to reach 5.6 per cent this year, pushing up the cost of living further.
And that in turn, rescuers said, will inevitably push growing numbers of owners to part with their pets.
Earlier in August, volunteers from the Stray Dogs Centre in Umm Al Quwain rescued two dogs tied up outside in the scorching heat of Sharjah’s Sajaa industrial area.
A black shepherd and a German shepherd were abandoned by their owner, without food or water, she said. A Siberian husky was also found, but it had died of heatstroke.
When the UAQ centre opened in 2014, it had capacity for 150 dogs but has since expanded considerably with monthly operating costs climbing to Dh90,000.
The non-profit shelter is assisted by the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, with all land fees and licensing granted free of charge by Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla, Ruler of Umm Al Quwain.
However, it relies on corporate sponsorship to keep operational.
Philippa Helms, a volunteer with rescue group Animals and Us in Fujairah, a shelter that flooded during the storms in July, has been helping collect and feed stay animals for about 18 months.
She is one of 200 volunteers involved with helping stray animals, either by topping up feeding stations, transporting animals to vets or giving up their time on adoption days.
“When the rescue teams were going house to house looking for pets during the floods, they found several other stray dogs and cats trapped by water,” Ms Helms said.
Relocation too costly for some owners
Rescue centres have been under intense financial pressure in recent months.
In January, free food handouts and public social media appeals were banned as the government tightened regulations on charitable activities to crack down on illegal fundraising.
Many rescue centres now rely on the goodwill of volunteer vets or clinics that offer services at a reduced rate to care for sick animals before they can be fostered.
About 300 to 400 dogs are in need of new homes at Animals and Us, and some have been there for months. The shelter feeds a further 1,000 stray animals on the streets.
“The start of summer is usually the beginning of dumping season and we see a pattern of people leaving the country and can’t get pet care so use it as an excuse to abandon their pets,” Ms Helms said.
“There has been a lot of hardship so some people just can’t afford their pets any more.
“Some are dropped off at a vets and left, others are left behind in villas when people leave the country.”
Home working and travel restrictions at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic led to record numbers of animals being taken in or offered temporary foster homes in the UAE.
That surge in demand has subsided and abandonments have returned, because many workers have returned to offices full time and are unable to afford day-care costs for pets.
New pet insurance
Dr Susan Aylott, an animal welfare volunteer in Abu Dhabi with the Animalia veterinary clinic, said more private-public partnerships and tighter enforcement on back-street breeders could resolve the issue.
“Pet abandonment is rife at the moment,” she said.
“People are dumping cats and dogs all around the city at feeding stations. Two black kittens were dumped in a bin recently, and this is not an isolated case.
“Animals are rescued from the street, but people don’t appreciate the expense of vet fees or relocation costs.”
She said a new My Buddy pet insurance plan with Fidelity for about Dh500 a year to cover unexpected emergency costs would help cash-strapped pet owners.
“If the government subsidised vets with sterilisation of stray cats and dogs across the country, this would certainly help,” Dr Aylott said.
“As would airlines if they could offer reduced rates for rescue dogs to be relocated when people leave the UAE.
“We have seen a huge rise in private breeders and people looking to make extra money, this is only making the problem worse.”