One day while out in the field, our team met an eight-year-old child, Jasmine, who, observing street dogs in the area rummaging through and fighting over garbage, asked, “Why do some street dogs have such hard lives?”

Jasmine has two dogs at home; they were rescued from difficult conditions and are deeply loved and cared for in her household. Jasmine couldn’t fathom how and why her dogs had plenty to eat and drink, while street dogs had to fight over garbage and scraps to survive; how some dogs like hers had easy, happy lives, while others had such hard ones on the street.

Jasmine’s perception of “some dogs” having “hard lives” was reinforced by her observation that dogs struggling on the streets were at risk of being injured by speeding cars and would likely not receive medical attention if they got hurt. Even at her young age Jasmine understood the vulnerability experienced by many street dogs.

Lack of regular access to food, water, and medical care subjects millions of street dogs to extreme vulnerability. In this piece, I draw on data illustrating the many ways by which dogs can become vulnerable to suffering, neglect, and misfortune, and make the case for a more peaceful coexistence between street animals and humans, one that could benefit us all.

Inadequate implementation and enforcement of pet ownership rules: India has an estimated pet dog population of 32 million. Coupled with recent reports highlighting the point that almost 50% of current and previous pet owners admit to having abandoned a pet, and the magnitude of the problem of pet abandonment becomes evident.

Moreover, these numbers likely underestimate the situation. Simply put, millions of dogs are abandoned in India every year.

For example, our team collecting street dogs for the sterilisation and vaccination program once found a healthy dog tied to a tree. They asked around and were given to understand that the owner was nearby.

However, a day later, they noticed that no one had come to take the dog. That’s when we realised that someone had mercilessly tied the dog up and left him/her to die or had hoped someone else would take pity and release him/her.

People buy and/or adopt pups for their cuteness and playful nature. But as pups grow, much like human babies, they can become precocious or even naughty. They need more food, attention and training, all of which places demands on people’s time, money and energies.

The cuteness from puppyhood gets forgotten and people, unable or unwilling to devote time, energy and resources, abandon their now grown dogs. For similar reasons, older dogs or dogs with medical issues, who require additional care, are also abandoned by their owners.

These abandoned dogs, millions each year, join the class of vulnerable animals overnight. Raised in homes as pets, they are ill-equipped to survive on the streets.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act 1960 clearly states that “abandoning any animal in a situation where they suffer pain or starvation” is a punishable offence. But our animal protection laws are in many cases unknown to pet owners or enforcement agencies, and even where they are known they are typically not enforced.

If you know someone who has abandoned a dog on purpose, file a report or speak to them about the danger and misery the poor animal they once considered a member of their family will face.

Do most people know where their cute puppies come from? Or how, in most cases, a mother dog is used as a breeding factory, with no care, compassion, nutrition, or proper veterinary treatment? Or how puppies are weaned much earlier than they ever should be?

To confront cruelty of this nature, it is crucial that we implement and enforce the Prevention of Cruelty (Dog Breeding & Marketing Rules) 2017. In the absence of proper enforcement, even after six years of the rules being in place, we have seen certain cruelties continue to grow and flourish.

Among other problems, breeding businesses have become sites of cruelty and inhumane exploitation. Dogs used for breeding are kept, often caged or tied up, in cramped and unhygienic conditions with almost no access to proper nutrition, care, and open space.

With increased globalisation, much of urban India has started keeping pedigreed dogs, especially exotic breeds, as “commodities” to boast of; as signifiers of status and lifestyle. Many Indians now prefer pedigreed dogs, resulting in adoptable indie dogs being ignored.

And while many of these owners do consider themselves concerned about or caretakers of street dogs, if the trend of wanting pedigreed dogs (many of whom will be abandoned as well) keeps growing, it could add dogs to the streets and make things worse for those already trying to survive there.

The case for adoption of street dogs is of course very strong. Every dog adopted off the streets is one less vulnerable animal whose fate is left to chance.

Adopting dogs from the streets instead of buying exotic breeds in the marketplace is one way to keep the street dog population in check, reduce the demand for bred dogs, and in the long term address the problem of breeding for the market.

India has a wide array of laws to protect different animals including dogs. Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, there are several regulations designed to protect animals. They include the Animal Birth Control (ABC) Rules 2001 and its recently updated 2023 version, the Breeding and Marketing Rules, 2017 and the Pet Shop Rules, 2018.

In all cases, however, awareness, knowledge, implementation, and enforcement are huge challenges. For instance, dog owners generally aren’t aware that abandoning their pet on the streets is a punishable offence according to the PCA Act 1960. However, abandonments also go unpunished, so that owners see no disincentive or obstacle to turning out their pets.

Ultimately, the inadequate implementation and enforcement of animal welfare laws leaves street dogs and abandoned pets vulnerable to various forms of mistreatment and neglect. Without legal protection and enforcement action, cases of abuse and cruelty can go unchecked, perpetuating the cycle of neglect and suffering for these innocent creatures.

If we took steps to see existing laws stringently implemented and enforced, they could significantly reduce the vulnerability of street dogs in ways that really count.

With the rise in pet ownership, the demand for private veterinarians has increased considerably in India. Private veterinary services, however, are expensive and unregulated. Moreover, these private services typically do not have a social or public outreach arm encompassing street dog issues.

Very few private veterinarians welcome street dogs into their clinics or extend their services to street dogs in other ways. There is also insufficient government infrastructure and personnel to support street dogs and those trying to help them.

As a result, dogs suffering from a medical issue, from a skin infection, a wound or injury, to chronic disease,are much more vulnerable than others. They are less able to forage for food, protect/defend themselves when required, and they are more prone to being attacked by humans and other animals.

We could address their vulnerability by strengthening existing infrastructure such as government veterinary hospitals, recruiting veterinarians with a keen interest and expertise in street animal welfare, and ensuring that those care providers have adequate support staff to help them carry out their important work.

According to varying estimates, India has between 60 to 80 million street dogs. Since many, if not most, of these dogs depend on humans for food, we find large populations of street dogs in dense human settlements, i.e., in our cities.

The paradox however is that the incredibly rapid growth rate of Indian cities has meant an exponential rise in the construction of gated communities where dogs aren't allowed and denser, cheek-by-jowl living in low-income neighbourhoods, where human-dog conflicts have risen because of the high density of the human and dog populations.

Rapid urbanisation has also massively reduced green areas in which dogs can forage, seek shelter, rest and play. This has increased the vulnerability of community dogs by reducing their ability to fend for themselves in securing food, water, and shelter, and increasing their risk of traffic accidents.

Urban planners, designers, and researchers need to attend more closely to the impacts of urbanisation on non-human life. Street dogs in India need to be considered alongside the other vulnerable groups taken into account by inclusive urban planning and design.

In other words, our “smart cities” should account for the needs of street dogs. Rather than writing them off the map, since that is ineffective and inhumane, smart city plans should accept the reality of human-street dog proximity in urban areas and work to improve safety and access to resources for humans and dogs alike.

Programs geared at spaying, neutering, and vaccinating street dogs are being implemented in some parts of India. However, less than a handful are developed with the welfare of street dogs at front and centre in program design and implementation.

As a result, in areas where ABC programs aren’t being implemented, or are carried out poorly, pups are born vulnerable to disease, accidents, and death.

Reducing pups on the streets is perhaps one of the first steps to reducing the population of vulnerable dogs in India. This can be done via ABC programs that ensure high-quality care for street dogs at all levels, while catching them; temporarily housing them in kennels and clinics; and in post-operative recovery and release.

Spay/neuter and vaccination programs, however, are only part of the solution. Engaging communities in the implementation of integrated sterilisation programs is equally important. If we are to make lives less hard for dogs on our streets and reduce their vulnerability, an integrated and humane ABC program is the need of the hour.

The question that one little girl posed to our field responders goes to the heart of the street dog issue in India today, and it was encouraging to see that Jasmine understood that there are no real moral differences between the animals we cherish and those we encounter on the street.

It was a reminder to us that we should not be complacent about trying to better all of their lives, whether they are household companions or denizens of the street. We have every incentive to strive for the kind of world in which those distinctions disappear and we can do a little more for all creatures in need.

Vrushti Mawani is Senior Manager, Community Engagement, Humane Society International/India.