Best Friend animal rescue folks give us information about feral dogs and cats.
I am an animal lover. It always hurts me to see a dog or cat killed on the highway. Some rural folks are fairly quick to kill a stray dog, especially if it is not identifiable as belonging to a neighbor. I am not one of those. I am not much for killing stray cats, either. I try to discourage feral animals from hanging around my property, raiding garbage cans or pet food, attacking or spreading disease to my own pets, but I try non-lethal means such as slingshots and paintball guns first.
Two or three years ago, I was out running my trimmer along the front fence. I was up in the corner, not quite a quarter-mile from the blacktop highway that runs past our place. I saw a van driving slowly, stopping, and starting up again on the highway. A few minutes later, a small dog came up our gravel lane then turned across the field when it saw me and headed off into a gully. The van came up the lane as well and stopped to talk to my wife who was on her lawnmower a hundred and fifty yards or so from where I was. The van then approached me, and a lady asked if I had seen the dog. I said I had, and she explained that she and her children had been chasing it from their house a mile or two down the road. I didn't quite understand the circumstances but I assumed the dog belonged to the kids and had somehow gotten frightened. Since the dog was a small dachshund or at least a dachshund mix with very stubby legs, I figured I could catch it down in the gully or possibly run it back out to where the owners could catch it. I offered to see what I could do. I had on a pair of leather gloves, but I foolishly took them off and placing on top of a corner post before going after the little beast.
Sure enough, I found the dog looking for water at the spring in the gully. When it saw me it took off up the other side, but the bank was steep and covered in thick, uncut fescue. The dog more or less high-centered in the deep grass, and I caught up. I had it now except for one minor point. The dog, knowing flight was impossible, rolled to its back and began snapping at me as I tried to pick it up. I knew if I could get a hand on the back of its neck, I could handle it easily enough, but that was no easy task.
The dog caught my left hand and punctured me a couple of times then it got my right hand. At that point I was hurt and very angry. I thought, briefly, about putting a boot in its mouth, but I did not see how that would help me get the right hold. Possibly the adrenaline was fogging my brain a little. Instead I just took my bare right hand and stuck it in the dog's mouth and let it bite down. As it was thus occupied, I was able to grasp the creature by the nape of the neck and bring it under control. The dog did, as I was carrying it out of the gully in my freely bleeding hands, manage one final act of defiance by defecating on my shirt. I handed the dog over to the lady who had a blanket she wrapped around it. She pointed out my bloody hands to her kids and told them to be careful. They kept the dog immobilized and harmless in the blanket until they were able to insert the animal into a travel cage.
I left my trimmer in the corner and headed back to the house to wash my wounds and staunch the bleeding. On the way, I stopped to show my wife the wounds resulting from my righteous endeavor. "You know, they were just trying to catch it to take it to the animal shelter," she said.
"It's not the kids' dog? Good grief! I got all chewed up and probably sent the poor critter to its demise to boot."
So, I was bitten multiple times by a feral dog that had been eating ripe, summertime road-kill and God only knows what else. No, I did not go get a rabies shot, a tetanus booster, antibiotics, or anything like that. I washed my hands, poured rubbing alcohol into the holes, and bound them up with paper towels and duct tape. I don't recommend that treatment. I had considerable swelling around the bites for several days, but I'm still here. At least, I think I am.
The harsh reality is that feral animals are no joke. This was a miniature dachshund. I can only imagine the kind of damage a medium-size or large dog could do. Animal bites are dangerous and not to be treated lightly. I just happened to get off without any known issues. Do not follow my example! At the very least, get a tetanus shot. Or, better yet, do not be foolish enough to get bitten in the first place.
The reason I bring this up is that there are a very large number of dogs and cats in the United States. The economy has forced many people to give their house pets up to shelters. If the economic situation worsens, many shelters, especially the no-kill shelters, could be overwhelmed. What do we expect people to do when they are desperate? Most won't resort to eating Fluffy or Fido, but they might just turn them loose in the country, especially if shelters are forced to charge or increase fees for taking in pets.
Those of us who live in the country might not have to worry too much about a dog or two running loose, but what happens when it is five dogs, or twenty-five dogs, or fifty dogs running in a pack, hungry, with little fear of humans?
As a boy, I witnessed the consequences of dogs getting together in small packs. These were not "stray" dogs but free-roaming dogs that belonged to various neighbors. They were not acting out of desperate hunger or foraging to stay alive. Nevertheless, they would chase livestock and were known to run cattle through fences. They were sometimes guilty of killing newborn calves or goats. Generally coyotes operate singly or in pairs and make very efficient, clean kills. The exception is when the parent coyotes are teaching a season's pups to hunt. But stray dogs that have not been raised feral are invariably messy, sloppy killers.
If stray dogs form a pack, expect the individual animals to redirect their loyalty to the pack. Dogs show loyalty to humans because they are part of our pack. We take care of them and make sure they have food and water. We provide their relational interaction and entertainment. My dog thinks I am the big dog. I don't think we can really understand a dog's view of things. Humans are much more like coyotes, adhering to family loyalty under most circumstances, but not really pack animals in our relations to one another. Only when we meld into the anonymity of a mob do we approach the pack mentality.
Where I am from, hunting dogs were always highly valued and respected. I still feel that running dogs and coon hounds ought to have a right to pursue their game across private property without being in danger of being shot. Hunting dogs should be identified with good, old-fashioned, low-tech name-plates which provide the owners name and contact information attached to clearly visible, reflective collars. Guard dogs and working dogs that spend most of their time outside should also be equipped with reflective collars and name-plates. When the owner is not able to be present, dogs should be restrained or confined in order to keep them from wandering. There is nothing amusing, macho, wise, or cool about letting dogs roam without restriction. As more feral and stray animals are seen in rural and suburban areas, the danger to wandering dogs will rise. Free-roaming, un-collared animals may become targets of livestock owners if stock is threatened by feral packs.
Cats are good to have around for rodent control as well as companionship. Dogs serve as faithful and loyal companions, guards, hunters, and workers. They deserve the best treatment we can give them. Those who feel they cannot support a dog or a cat under adverse conditions should try to find the animal a good home. The worst and most irresponsible thing that can be done is to dump an animal in a rural area so it can "be free". The person who does this banishes the creature to hunger, disease, and suffering. A tragic chain of events is often set in motion by such an act. Sad as it may be, the truth is that it is far better for the animal and all concerned that the owner have it put down rather than dump it.
It is almost too much to expect Bambi-ized city dwellers to act responsibly with regard to pets. If dog packs do form in an area, live-trapping the dogs and turning them over to a shelter may be an option. However, it may come to something less desirable. There are worse ways to die in the woods and fields than from a well-placed bullet -- far worse ways. In the end, we simply have to do what we have to do, like it or not. If it becomes necessary to protect our food sources, our own animals, or ourselves, we may have no choice but to destroy marauding packs by whatever means are available.
We should encourage our friends, neighbors, and family members to be responsible and prudent with regard to dogs and cats they own. We can hope that it never comes to the point of having no choice except to kill a stray animal, but we must be prepared if it does.