Story: Pets

Page 5. When good pets go bad

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Some pets can become a nuisance if allowed to run wild. This usually happens if they are abandoned or neglected by their owners. Animal welfare organisations advocate neutering pets to prevent the birth of unwanted kittens or puppies, which are frequently dumped, and to stop stray animals from breeding.

Feral cats

Stray pet cats, ferrets, rabbits and birds can cause environmental damage, especially if they multiply. But feral cats (cats that are not reliant on humans for their needs) are a greater problem in national parks and reserves. They kill millions of native birds each year, as well as lizards and frogs, in order to survive. Some carry parasites and other diseases. The Department of Conservation targets feral cats in its pest control programmes.

Cats in dairies

The Labour government of 1972–75 decided to change health regulations to ban cats from dairies – the ubiquitous New Zealand corner stores. In the 1975 election campaign National Party leader Robert Muldoon mocked this, claiming that cats were the victims of out-of-control bureaucracy.

Toxoplasmosis

Both feral and domestic cats can infect humans with toxoplasmosis. This disease is caused by a parasite found in the faeces of some cats that eat raw meat. It is generally a mild flu-like disease, but if caught by a pregnant woman it can seriously harm, or even kill, the foetus. It can be prevented by following strict hygiene rules when handling anything that may have been in contact with cat faeces.

A dog of a tax

In 1898 the Māhurehure hapu (subtribe) of Ngāpuhi, under the leadership of Hōne Tōia, threatened to oppose the Dog Registration Act by force. The law, which required payment of an annual fee to register a dog, was the final straw for people who lived in poverty. A large militia force was sent to deal with what has become known as the Dog Tax Rebellion, but Northland Māori leaders intervened and persuaded the group to surrender.

Dog control

In the early days of European settlement there were large numbers of stray and wild dogs, both in towns and in the countryside, where they were a danger to sheep. Even pet dogs living on the margins of towns would sometimes get loose and worry sheep. Laying poison to kill stray dogs was one control method that was outlawed by cruelty prevention acts.

The first dog control law dates from 1844, and there were provincial council and general assembly acts in the 1860s and 1870s. The first national law requiring owners to register their dogs was passed in 1880.

Payment of the registration fee caused resentment among some Māori, and almost led to war at Waimā, Northland, in 1898. The responsibility of owners to control dogs, and the power of local authorities to seize, impound and, if necessary, destroy dogs was reinforced in subsequent dog control acts.

Microchipping

The growing popularity of aggressive dog breeds, and a spate of dog attacks on people, resulting in serious injury and death, led to amendments of the Dog Control Act 1996.

All dogs first registered from 1 July 2006 (except working farm dogs), and all dogs classified as dangerous or menacing, must be microchipped. Details of dogs and their owners are recorded in a national database. This makes it easier to track problem dogs, reunite stray dogs with their owners, and ensure owners comply with the law.

Hydatids

Hydatids is a serious and sometimes fatal disease in humans. It is caused by the tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus, which lives in the gut of dogs that have eaten the raw offal of sheep containing fertile hydatid cysts. Sheep also become infected by grazing on pasture contaminated with the faeces of dogs carrying hydatids, and their meat becomes unfit for human consumption.

The disease was introduced to New Zealand in the 19th century by sheep imported from Australia. The large numbers of working and pet dogs provided hosts for its transmission to humans.

By 1900 the human infection rate was rising and it was recognised as a serious public health issue. In 1959, with the passing of the Hydatids Control Act, a national control programme began, funded by the dog registration fee. This involved regular inspection of all dogs and, from the 1970s, dosing with anthelmintics. This was very effective, and in 2002 New Zealand was declared provisionally free of hydatids.

Health concerns have led to more vocal opposition to dogs defecating in public places, and now many councils require owners to clean up after their pets with a ‘pooper scooper’.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Pets - When good pets go bad', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/pets/page-5 (accessed 24 October 2019)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Nov 2008