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Animal shelters overcrowded: ‘In Belgium it is still much too easy to buy a dog’

Animal shelters in Flanders, Belgium are facing a significant challenge: overflowing with animals in need of homes while remaining strict in their selection of owners. One such shelter, Dierenbescherming Mechelen, has been caring for dogs and cats for over 50 years. nonetheless, the shelter is facing space constraints and has plans to relocate to a larger area. The lack of space is evident as the dogs are crowded together in close quarters. The shelter currently has 60 dogs and 30 more on the waiting list. Similarly, the cat population is also overwhelming, with the shelter housing 120 young kittens last week alone. The shelter’s effort to find adoptive homes for these animals is met with a lack of interested candidates. The shelter is considering changing its policy of adopting out kittens in pairs to increase adoption rates. These overcrowded shelters are a result of various factors, including failed adoptions, the death or moving of owners, and the mistreatment of animals. Despite the high number of animals in need, shelters like Dierenbescherming Mechelen still maintain strict adoption processes to ensure the right fit between owner and pet. This selectivity has led to frustration among potential adopters, as some people are unable to meet the shelter’s specific criteria or find the particular type of dog they desire. The shelter’s rejection of certain adopters contributes to the overwhelming number of large breed dogs, like pit bulls and staffords, in their care. Another issue faced by these shelters is the presence of unregistered microchips, typically found in dogs from irresponsible breeders. These breeders often disregard animal protection regulations and prioritize profit over the well-being of the animals. Despite the challenges faced by these shelters, their dedication to finding suitable homes for animals remains strong. Their selective adoption process aims to prevent future failed adoptions and ensure the well-being of the animals in their care.

Our animal shelters are overflowing, but remain strict in the selection of owners. Rejected candidates knock on the door of bread breeders or take a foreign dog.

The irony cannot escape any visitor to Dierenbescherming Mechelen. The institution where dogs and cats have been cared for for half a century is located in Slachthuislaan and is literally adjacent to an abattoir. With nine paid employees and a large group of volunteers, it is one of the larger shelters in Flanders. But the relocation plans that the non-profit organization has harbored for years have nothing to do with the strange neighbourliness. ‘We’re too cramped here,’ says dog manager Bram Willems. ‘The city of Mechelen has reserved a larger area, but we have to finance the buildings and infrastructure ourselves. Not easy for a non-profit organisation.’

A tour of the cages makes the lack of space clear. Although the dogs are in separate cages, they are still nose to nose. “Most of these dogs are not social enough,” says Willems. ‘We try to correct this through behavioral training, so that they are eligible for adoption. But that runs smoothly. We currently have 60 dogs, divided between the shelter and a few foster families. We are completely full with that. There are still 30 dogs on the waiting list.’

In Mechelen and Ghent, shelter animals are not euthanized. © Debby Termonia


With cats it is less noticeable, but appearances can be deceiving. The ginger cat Oskar rubs against the bars, scooting for a pat. On the concrete floor sits a thick-haired cat with an inflamed eyelid, a stray who has walked into a catch cage and has been sterilized in the meantime. Since 2016, cities and municipalities have been obliged to draw up an action plan to control the stray cat population. Catching and sterilizing helps, but it continues to mop with the tap open. The Mechelen shelter had 120 young kittens last week, while the kitten season is only halfway.

Cat responsible Katia Geudens is at a loss. ‘We house kittens with foster families, motivated volunteers who raise entire litters with the baby bottle. Currently all places are taken, but the kittens keep coming. The problem is that there are too few departures because hardly any adopters report themselves. Never experienced before.’

She can’t explain it right away. Maybe it’s the aftermath of the corona lockdowns. Then the demand for pets peaked. Or there may be economic motives, a vet argues as he sterilizes a young cat. Pet food is not cheap, but especially the medical costs can add up. The overpopulation is so acute that Geudens is considering throwing a principle overboard. “Kittens always have to be adopted in pairs here,” she says. ‘That is better for their well-being, especially if they come from the same litter. It costs 350 euros to sterilize, vaccinate, deworm and chip two cats. Perhaps that amount is a threshold after all. From now on we will also offer kittens separately.’

From now on we will offer kittens individually instead of in pairs.

Overcrowded animal shelters are a recurring phenomenon. Most animals enter after voluntary distancing. Due to force majeure, for example when a single owner dies or moves to a residential care centre. Other dogs are given up because they have behavioral problems. These are often the result of a failed upbringing or wrong expectations. Still others end up in the shelter through the police, usually after a tip from a neighbor or passer-by who suspects neglect.

© Debby Termonia

The traditional summer peak can partly be explained by a striking increase in the number of ‘lost’ dogs. In principle, they are returned to their owner after reading the obligatory chip, but not always. ‘We often see dogs that are chipped, but not registered,’ says Kevin Vankeirsbilck, communication officer of Dierenbescherming Gent. Thus, the identity of the owner cannot be traced. Unregistered chips are the trademark of bread breeders who don’t take animal protection regulations very seriously.’

No self service

In recent weeks, social media has been abuzz with reports of the animal shelter paradox. As the shelters overflow with dogs and cats, they are making it increasingly difficult for people to adopt an animal. A false contrast, we hear in Mechelen and Ghent. ‘It is true that we place selectively’, says Vankeirsbilck. ‘A positive match is especially important for dogs. With us, prospective adopters must complete a questionnaire if they are interested in a dog on the website. How big is the living space? Is there a garden? Are there young children? Is there another dog or pet? How much time do owners have to walk their dogs? The best candidate is invited for an interview and an introduction to the dog. Often several sessions are involved, especially when it comes to larger, more difficult dogs. Walking is a positive way to estimate the match.

© Debby Termonia

We have already refused adoption because the children were too violent with the dogs. Are we too strict? On the contrary, it saves us dogs that end up here again after a failed adoption. I do understand the frustration. The shelter used to be a kind of self-service business, you walked in and out with a dog of your choice. Nowadays we have to disappoint many candidates, also because we cannot offer what they ask for. Almost everyone wants a small dog that fits in an apartment and gets along with children: a maltese, chihuahua or French bulldog. We sometimes get them, but we don’t even put them on the website. They are immediately reserved during our free visiting days. The big dogs are much more difficult to place – the Malinois and power breeds such as pit bulls and staffords. They make up the vast majority of the 42 dogs we currently have in shelter.’

By selecting adopters strictly, we avoid unsuccessful placements.

Forbidden varieties

The large calibers also dominate in Mechelen. During the tour we will see pit bulls, staffords and a rare Anatolian Shepherd dog, known for its strength and intelligence, but also for its independence. ‘Not an easy dog,’ says Willems. ‘People often don’t know what they’re getting into. We have already received fifteen puppies in the past three months. Training is essential, especially for large dogs. Malinois that are not properly socialized fall back on their instincts. They become overprotective of their owner by being aggressive towards the outside world, even towards other family members. In France, the cultivation and sale of power breeds is virtually prohibited. visitors are not even allowed on a campsite with such a dog. In Belgium, the regulations are very lax. It is still far too easy to buy a dog here. An hour in the car, and you will find a breeder for any breed. Recently I was denied an adoption. The applicant absolutely wanted a Malinois, totally unsuitable for the inhabitant of a small apartment. He left without a dog, but I have no doubt that he quickly found his liking. A few mouse clicks on secondhand.be and you have a Malinois.’

© Debby Termonia


Willems points to two black loebasses, cane corsos. Two summers ago, they had over sixty in the shelter. Half came from a seizure at a breeder in Booischot where animal protection inspectors had found out abuses: dying dogs, malnutrition, neglect, inbreeding, no form of socialization. It is no coincidence that half ended up in Slachthuislaan. ‘There are breeders and breeders,’ says Bram. ‘positive breeders don’t sell haphazardly. They work with waiting lists and provide aftercare. You can buy a dog in half an hour at bread breeders. Pay and Kees is done. You can easily find them on secondhand.be, the breeders who offer ten or more different varieties. “Pups bred in Belgium”, it says as a quality label. In reality, they import breeding bitches from Eastern Europe, which they breed empty in four to six years. Often they offer designer dogs such as labradoodles, cockapoos, maltipoos and pomskies. They are popular, but I’m not a fan of them. There are already enough dog breeds. Even worse is that those bread breeders don’t make any effort to socialize their dogs.’

Poorly socialized dogs end up in the shelter more often than average, which means that the capacity is clogging up. Like Ghent, Mechelen uses a no kill-policy. Some dogs have been there for four years. Very exceptionally, in case of illness or dangerous behavior, euthanasia is performed. “We are not giving up any dog,” says Willems. ‘Not even if they get a code red and are not allowed to be cared for by volunteers. We have already achieved unexpected successes through behavioral training. Such a dog requires a lot of commitment, but as an adopter you can get a close bond with it.’

© Debby Termonia

Greyhound’s at Podenco’s

Between the herders and the powerbreeds is a scrawny mutt, imported from Greece by one of the many volunteer organizations that help dogs in need in countries such as Spain, Greece, Romania and Serbia. The so-called rescuecircuit is an important supplier for dog lovers, and indirectly also for animal shelters. The Flemish Council for Animal Welfare recommended a ban last year. Foreign adoptions typically go unscreened, through websites that don’t hesitate to play off the emotional impact of a sad dog look. The risk of behavioral and health problems is too great.

The bar is very high. That’s how you drive people into the arms of breeders of questionable stature.

Karen Sergeyssels disagrees. For more than twenty years she has been committed to foreign dogs in need. It all started during an extended stay in Spain, where she was confronted with the grim reality of the kennel’s found out. At first glance these seem like shelters, but in reality thousands of dogs are killed every year. These are often galgos and podencos, hunting dogs that lose their usefulness after the hunting season and therefore also their right to exist. Sergeyssels, who nowadays makes videos to promote domestic and foreign adoption, knows Flemish rescuelandscape as her pocket. ‘There is always chaff among the wheat, but I mostly see well-organized organizations with motivated and honest volunteers,’ she says. ‘They are not at all frivolous about an adoption, on the contrary. They even make a home visit beforehand, and they continue to monitor the dog after placement. Official shelters should do that too, but they don’t have enough staff for it. Of course a strict selection is necessary, but I have difficulty with the method of the official shelters, with an endless questionnaire that sets the bar very high for candidate adopters. That way you drive many people into the arms of breeders of dubious stature. Although many choose a foreign dog. Out of idealism, but also out of economic considerations. With a breeder you easily pay 1500 euros, a foreign adoption rarely costs more than 300 euros.’

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