A puppy running to you in sheer joy of the love she knows is waiting or a cat snuggling on your lap. A mug of coffee by your side as you sit scrolling on social media. Idyllic. Warm. A picture perfect scene. Circa 2021. And then it pops up, a post from a friend about a two year old German Shepherd up for adoption. With perfect justifications for why. You stop to wonder if the words - up for adoption - is not just another connotation for abandonment? You bring home a little furbaby. You ‘struggle’ to care for it for two years and give up on him. If that is not abandonment in the broadest of terms, it is certainly close.

According to the recently published State of Homelessness Index Report there are over 91 lakhs stray cats in the streets, 6.2 crore stray dogs, 88 lakh cats and dogs in shelters across India. The study, by Mars Petcare, US, spread over nearly 19 months, ranked India at a pitiable last at 2.4.Each country received an overall score between zero and 10 with 10 = no pet homelessness exists, based on three focus areas. Derived from 200 global and local sources across nine countries and supplemented by new quantitative research based on attitudinal data, the Index was conceptualized to map country-specific context and challenges with the hope to identify the key factors that impact the issue.

The study mapped three main areas - All Pets Wanted (Stray Populations & Responsible Breeding), All Pets Cared For (Pet Adoption & Access To Care) and All Pets Welcome (Pet Ownership Barriers & Policies). Data shows that 78% of pet owners in India treat their pet for ticks, compared to the global average of 76%. On the flipside, there is a high prevalence of stray populations which is bringing the country’s ‘All Pets Wanted’ score down. Nearly 7 in 10 (68%) of the population says they see a stray cat at least once a week while nearly 8 in 10 (77%) say they see a stray dog as frequently. While as a country, we showed a higher-than-average

willingness to own or foster a cat or dog, nearly 68% of the general population are open to consider owning a dog as compared to the global average of 50%. However, In India 61% of people do not visit the vet for practical reasons such as distance or reputation of the establishment, as compared to the global average of 32%. These numbers do not give us much credit under the All Pets Cared For category. India has great initiatives from charities, government and companies to help address pet homeless that are deemed effective. However, the perceived cost of pet ownership are relatively higher than other countries. Nearly 47% of people surveyed report having abandoned or re homed pets citing cost of veterinary care and food as the primary reason for relinquishment.

How did it get there despite there being so many rescue organizations and passionate animal lovers in the country? Are we turning dispassionate as a people or is it an indication of a larger underlying issue? Pet homelessness is a burgeoning issue in urban areas, brought to the fore during the pandemic. What this Index has provided us is a basis to measure the impact of the collective work being done, over time, to tackle this concern. What is needed more than ever now is collaborative action with government, NGOs and individual stakeholders to address pet ownership, to identify better cities for pets, sensitizing the general populace towards animal cruelty, though leadership programmes, stray feeding through NGOs and adoption. Is it just

enough to know the numbers or can we as an informed population do something more to curb this abysmal state of negligence? There is a definite need for a more seamless effort to address the issue of pet homelessness. Homelessness needs to be redefined from that in the dictionary to describe just the strays on the streets and extrapolated to include the abandoned pets too.

We need to remind people that the pet you brought home feels unloved and homeless when you suddenly choose to rehome it, no matter what the reasons you put forth. For a country that prides itself on writing the book on the journey of the soul, how are we forgetting that every living being, in this case the pets, is a soul and an abandoned soul is a traumatised one?

Policy makers and thought leaders need to bring forth programmes on not just sterilizing, vaccinating, rescue and adoption of the stray animal population, measures will need to be put into place to address pet owners as a contributor segment to the state of homelessness. There has to be some measure of ownership criteria guidelines, educating the potential owners of what to expect in terms of financial repercussions of being a responsible pet owner.

Government programmes for access to affordable veterinary care would definitely be of help in a price conscious population such as ours, making it viable for all animal lovers to have the joy of ownership instead of a deterrent. Foster families are known to play a big role in rehoming by providing temporary homes for pets in need. This would definitely help take the burden off the rudimentary resources available to animal shelters across the country.

Using the parameters of the report, the following measures would probably go a long way in mitigating the issue of pet abandonment and homelessness in India:

All Pets Wanted

A closely evaluated reproduction control programme for the roaming and stray animal population, through spaying/ neutering, responsible breeding practices and disease prevention can go a long way; but what also helps would be helping to change the cultural attitudes towards pet ownership overall.

All Pets Cared For

Apart from monitoring and encouraging shelter adoption numbers and pet ownership, assessing shelter pain points, access to affordable veterinary care would help address this parameter. This would obviously also entail collaborative efforts with government and corporate entities willing to invest in research and development of veterinary medication and incentivizing the process of safe facilities for care. Rehoming policies should also be strictly adhered to within the police and armed forces where service dogs are merely farmed out to shelters once they are no longer deemed viable for active service. Instead, with more humane policies that have adoption programmes for senior service dogs would go a long way in respecting their service to us.

All Pets Welcome

Understanding the barriers to pet ownership in our country is of prime importance along with educating the population on responsible pet ownership to avoid further escalation of this disturbing trend of pet homelessness. With the right policies in place and government support surely we can be better at ensuring that the pets who bring us such joy are not abandoned simply because we failed to understand what we were taking on when we brought them into our lives.

It is only when we care enough to course correct, can we hope to make our world a better place for our pets.