A post with ‘charm’ and ‘Italian’ in the title, you’d expect to be all about Italy’s Golden Age starlets, rather than co-owned stray dogs in Abruzzo’s mountain villages & towns known as ‘cani randagio’ or the more kindly ‘cani di quartiere’.

My admiration for these dogs is due to their touching ability to “work” a whole village.  Despite their odd shapes & forms (these mongrel dogs would never likely gain entrance to Crufts for example), the matted-ness of their hair when long and their hosting of numerous ticks at the very least, they still manage to charm a fearful Signora into dividing out her leftovers that are usually reserved for the stray cats.  Stats have been conducted within the Teramo province to suggest 22% of residents would feed a village co-owned dog where as 40% would feed the stray cats. The charm of our local cane randagio used to even get the local baker-van man to charitably toss a couple of rolls for her daily, no mean feat as this was his income.

Our Italian village dog, nicknamed Lady locally by the villagers, had better people habits than any PR company on a mission.  She seemed to know the waking times of each individual in the village, on the off-chance I was an early riser she’d sprint from her position by the village fountain, otherwise at 7.00 am on the dot she’d be sitting below my balcony looking up with a good-morning smile and the biggest wag of a tail as I opened my bedroom doors.  This little gesture she was intelligently aware may not be rewarded by breakfast but would more often than not result in a snack at some point during the day.

Unofficial guard dog seemed a role our village dog slipped into, that or these dogs are now hard-coded to undertake this as their ‘free roaming’ role.  No matter who was out for a walk  she’d tag along, walking ahead, trying to dig up lizards or sitting and enjoying the shade of a tree whilst you caught up.  Cars were her new wolves, chasing those she didn’t recognise out of the village with a bark, growl and yap depending on the speed of the car and how careful they were being in order to not run her over.  This role sadly does result in issues; the number of accidents reported in 2005 in Italy 400 accidents to humans due to ‘free roaming dogs’ and 20 canine casualties.

A Lady Walk

How hungry are Italy’s stray dogs? Ours wasn’t for regular dog biscuits or snacks which she always spat out.  I was always amazed that unlike domesticated dogs her teeth seem to be immaculate and unlike our indoor ‘kept’ dog she never seemed to have that eau de doggie smell.  Lady rarely got into the village communal bin unless it was Christmas or someone locally was doing up their house, in which case ballast would fill up the bin forcing everyone else to put their bin bags on the floor which of course she burrowed into – thankfully for the moment the village rubbish is still collected weekly.

Where do these stray dogs live?  Well, there are plenty of abandoned homes for them to shelter in amongst Abruzzo’s villages due to the various economic exoduses from the Apennine villages over the last 40 years. Perhaps they should be a measure of where you choose to buy that bargain house in Abruzzo, look at how well the village dog is treated as it is very variable!

Dr. Rosario Fico, an Italian public vet, carried out research on the behaviour of stray dogs in Pescasseroli in the Abruzzo National Park in 1995.  Interestingly he found that:

  • 98-100% of the stray dogs had an ‘owner’
  • 40% of puppies born died from diseases or accidents within the first two months of age
  • Only 2.75% of the dogs has been registered and identified

Why are there so many dogs on the streets in Italy? The usual sad loss of interest when a puppy grows into a dog, a drop in income, unemployment – the national rate is currently 12.6% and death.  The difference in Italy to many countries is that in 1991 a national law was passed and revised and upheld again when debated in Abruzzo in 2013, that it is illegal to put a ‘healthy’ dog to sleep, it is only permissible to have a dog euthanised who has an incurable disease.  If an adult dog is left at a dog home this will most probably be their home for the rest of their natural life, perhaps another reason that so many of their owners leave them to fend for themselves than face this option as conditions can be incredibly basic.

Dogs that show aggression are required to be examined by a vet followed by a behaviourist before they can be sent to a dog home, money that some families do not have nor some are willing to pay when they are worried that the dog will bite their children, so they let them go.  To be ‘reconditioned’ and rehomed by a behaviourist for a month is a €300 investment, the price of food an extra a bill which not all caring pet parents are willing to pay so again the dog is simply shown the door.

The vet Dr Fico felt the best solutions to the issue of Italy’s stray dogs was not to kennel them, despite it seemingly being one of the Italy’s most lucrative businesses, private dog pounds can receive between €2-7 per dog per day and with such an income many do not actively encourage adoption and new homes.  He advised investing in the cheaper sustainable capture, neuter and and return programmes, which after a period of time sees local stay dog populations significantly diminish.  He wrote that the best use of human and financial resources was on preventative measures such as education, discussion and information on being a responsible pet parent and also a proper registration and identification system.  20 years on there are still no exact numbers of stray dogs in Italy but estimates are that there are 150,000 new ones each year.

Despite government investment there is still a lack of funding to adequately subsidise the cost of neutering.  Unplanned puppies which are not adopted are often discarded with the common belief they can fend for themselves or someone somewhere will eventually take them in.  Of course some don’t, some become feral and dangerous through having no socialisation with humans and some interbreed with wolves.

Are the village dogs a serious danger to humans who have direct contact with them? Second guessing the Teramo study I would say no, in that only 2% of the study thought they should be euthanised.  However due to their lack of initial inoculations or boosters they can carry parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis, which can cause painful deaths for them but can worryingly be passed onto both the region’s wolf population and, it is suspected, the already endangered Marsican bear population.  The latter is already battling the crossover of bovine TB as well its uncomfortable co-habitation with humans that has resulted in 10% of the population being lost in the last year alone. The bear charity Salviamo L’orso has undertaken to vaccinate and micro-chip 1000 of the stray dogs that live close the Abruzzo National Park as part of its Caring for Dogs Saves the Bears project, no doubt more abandoned dogs will join those inoculated this year if funding exists to allow them to continue the programme.

Winning Post of the ABC & Salviamo L’Orso’s  blog competition & linky party ‘ Wild Thing, I think I Love You