There are too many dogs in Ventura County. So many that the Camarillo shelter run by the Department of Animal Regulations is perpetually 100 percent full. Monica Nolan is the director and said running the shelter is a job of juggling. “It is a space issue,” she said. “We are the shelter for nine cities and the unincorporated area, and we carry about 200 dogs on a daily basis. We have an average of 25 dogs that come in a day, so we have to guarantee that 25 dogs go out a day, one way or another.”
The choices are difficult but there are options for some of the dogs. First, there are the reclaimed dogs who may have run away or become lost. Then there are the dogs who do get adopted. Others that have not been privately adopted are rescued by as many as 100 different rescue organizations. Those that are too physically ill, injured, or that have not been socialized have very little time to be rehabilitated. Although the time limit varies, it rarely exceeds one month. During the 2008-2009 season, of the 6,728 dogs that entered the shelter, including more than 1,500 that were relinquished by their owners, 2,041 were euthanized.
The number of dogs meeting that fate is dramatically higher than it was just three years ago. The year before the recession hit, 1,527 dogs were euthanized by the county due to a lack of space. Nolan believes there is a direct relationship between the hard economic times and the large number of homeless dogs.
“Over the past couple of years, we have seen an increase in animals because of the recession,” Nolan said. “We have noticed, when people have had to move because of foreclosures and they have to move into apartments, they have been able to keep their cats but they haven’t been able to keep their dogs.”
The costs of medical treatment for an ailing or injured dog can be astronomical. Nolan said some people have anonymously surrendered their dogs out of desperation so that the dog can receive veterinary care at the shelter.
When the dog is on the mend, they then try to adopt him again before someone else takes him or he is euthanized. It is a chancy game and not exactly legal, but perhaps they feel that some care is better than none. There are no low-cost veterinary clinics anywhere in the county. Even a moderate to serious medical issue can cost many thousands of dollars, sometimes requiring ongoing care for the rest of the dog’s life.
According to Nolan, two breeds dominate the shelter population: pit bulls and Chihuahuas. “We have so many more pit bulls that are coming in than are adopted because, like Chihuahuas, there are backyard breeders,” Nolan said. “The education is not out there. Things like no, your female dog does not need to have a litter first (before being spayed), or that your male dog will still be protective of the household after he is neutered.”
The mighty Chihuahua: too much of a good thing
Chihuahuas present a special challenge to the shelter staff. “We do have an awful lot of Chihuahuas and I think that is independent of the recession,” Nolan said. “It is the fallout from the Paris Hilton thing, and we also have a high Hispanic population here, and Chihuahuas are very popular with that culture.”
Nolan pointed out some of their unique problems. “We see a lot of Chihuahuas that are injured, that come to our vet that way,” she said. “We see a lot that are right on the border of abuse and behavioral issues. Because they are so tiny, they have a very hard time in life, so it takes a special socialization for them. They are almost a prey animal, so they have to look at the world in a different way. When they come in, they do have a temperament problem.”
Dr. Al Schwartz runs the Moorpark Veterinary Hospital and said their diminutive size contributes to their often pugnacious personalities around strangers. “The breed does tend to be a little more protective of its family. Tiny as it is, it seems to have a Napoleon complex, a little-man complex.”
Chihuahuas rank high on many statistical lists. They are the second most popular breed in the county. They are the second most likely breed to be impounded. And they hold the No. 2 spot for the most dog bites.
Schwartz said there are also a number of special medical issues for Chihuahuas, including a few which are entirely preventable. “Chihuahuas tend to have problems with their teeth, so dental issues are common,” he said. “Because of the shape of their skull, they can have problems like hydrocephalus, which is water on the brain. Also, Chihuahuas can have problems with their knees. And they have long lives, usually 15 to 18 years.”
Due to the fragility of the breed, being in a home with small children can present other issues. “If you have a 5-pound Chihuahua, a young child is going to want to lift it up and carry it around,” Schwartz said. “If they drop the Chihuahua, it could break a leg. The breed is so small that if a toddler grabs a tail or an ear of a Chihuahua, they can cause a lot more distress to that dog than if they grab a golden retriever.”
Another consideration is the use of a doggie door, which for most breeds is very convenient. But Chihuahuas have a special problem. “As for having a Chihuahua in your backyard,” Schwartz said, “they can easily fall prey to animals like coyotes and even large hawks.”
Chihuahuas tend to bond strongly with their families, but even that trait has problems. “Unneutered males can be very protective of the household, to the degree of becoming aggressive against strangers,” Schwartz said. “They will protect their families. So, especially if there are toddlers and they expect to be having kids come by and visit, the protective Chihuahua might not be the best choice.”
Due to their diminutive size, many families own more than one dog. This is another situation where socialization is the key to success. “The Chihuahua wants to be the top dog in the house, no matter how big the other dogs are,” Schwartz said. “As long as the other dogs accept that, Chihuahuas are OK but most Chihuahuas tend to want to be dominant. If you have more than one Chihuahua, usually it is the female that is the dominant one.”
Then there is the issue that all dog owners need to master, housetraining. “They can be a little challenging to housetrain, as is the case of many toy breeds,” Schwartz said. “Initially, you have to spend some extra time housetraining them.”
They will love you to death
Despite all of the potential problems posed by Chihuahuas, the breed has an incredibly devoted following. For one thing, when a puppy is properly raised in an appropriate environment, it can be extremely affectionate and adorable.
They also are ideal for small spaces, which has contributed to their growing popularity.
“Dogs have gone from backyards to bedrooms,” Schwartz said. “Small dogs are more compatible with being inside the majority of the time. Small dogs don’t require nearly as much exercise or as much room and are more suitable for people living in small houses or apartments. They are low maintenance that way.”
There are several Chihuahua and small-dog rescue organizations in Ventura County. Many of these nonprofits find their dogs by rescuing the ones that have been listed for euthanasia. The groups scour several public shelters in Ventura County, Los Angeles County and Kern County. The Kern County shelter has a reputation of having an extremely high kill rate, so many of those dogs wind up in local rescues. Once placed in a rescue organization, the dog is cared for indefinitely. As such, dogs of all ages, from puppies to seniors, are available at the rescue organizations.
At a recent adoption session held at a pet store, the rescue group brought out 16 Chihuahuas. Inside of three hours, three dogs found new homes. But other people attended the session who already owned Chihuahuas and brought them along just to be supportive.
One man watching the excitement stood out. Steve Knight brought along his two Chihuahuas, Chuy and the extremely small Tequila. Little Tequila, full-grown and weighing all of 3 pounds soaking wet, was wearing a tiny, brightly colored dress. Knight said he stands 6-feet 2-inches and admits to filling out his large frame quite well. The contrast of the large man clutching two very small pooches was amusing and tender.
Knight said he had always owned large dogs. “My wife talked me into having small dogs, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world,” he said. “I would do anything for these two dogs.”
Liz Knight, Steve’s wife, was holding a very sweet-looking, longhaired Chihuahua that was up for adoption. She said she was not thinking of adding one more dog to the mix but just wanted to give the pooch some love. Referring to her husband and dogs, “We’ve only been married about three and a half years, and these are our babies together,” Knight said. “Because they are so small, we can’t let them outside by themselves. The squirrels are bigger than they are.”
Speaking to all who would listen, Liz Knight said, “Definitely adopt a Chihuahua. They will love you to death.”
Nonprofits to the rescue
The owner of the rescue organization at the store preferred to have her group and her identity remain hidden, due to interorganizational jealousies. But her personal journey to recently opening the Chihuahua rescue was circuitous. She grew up on a farm where local law enforcement agencies would retire their working canines, mostly German shepherd dogs and Dobermans. As an adult, she began a Greyhound rescue after learning about their sad fate once they no longer raced.
After moving to a smaller house, she said she needed to work with a smaller breed and was enchanted by the Chinese crested. During that time, on one of her many trips to the shelter, she saw “a scrawny, snarfy Chihuahua with the tag card of ‘untrainable and incorrigible.’ I never cared for the breed prior to that time, but those three words jumped out at me like a challenge head-on. I have been doing Chihuahua rescue ever since.” And that one little dog with the tag, still with her, is now 13 years old.
Kelli Hopper of Saving Animals From Euthanasia Animal Rescue is an angel to the frailest of all shelter dogs. “We specialize in the smaller (under 15 pounds) dogs that have been injured and are in the medical wards of shelters,” Hopper said. “As such, we have seen a tremendous amount of dogs being turned in by their owners who cannot afford their medical treatment. These are the least likely to be adopted. These are truly wonderful dogs that are overlooked because of their medical condition.”
Among the rescued dogs is a 4-month-old Chihuahua named Iris. She was hit by a car and turned in by her owners in terrible shape. She needed to have one leg amputated, and another is being held together with surgical pins while she heals. Shammie has a severe skin condition that requires a strong stomach to be around. And 14-year-old Dobbie had likely never once seen a veterinarian. His teeth were barely hanging on, due to an advanced gum disease.
The organization funds all of the needs for their rescues, which are spread out in foster homes until they can be adopted. Caring for these dogs is extremely expensive. “We have certainly noticed a decline in donations,” Hopper said. “Our vet bills are enormous, and we depend on the generosity of others to be able to fulfill our mission of saving the injured dogs from the shelter.”
There are built-in rewards for fostering an injured dog. “It’s an emotional journey that’s well worth the time and energy to follow,” Hopper said. “Of course, I still cry whenever one of my fosters does find their permanent home, but they are happy tears.”