One mention of Greece is enough to invite images of white-washed seaside villages, raucous party islands, and sparkling turquoise seas. It might be better known as a lusted vacation destination, doused in ancient history and brimming with unforgettable experiences, but one of the first things you’ll notice on the ancient streets of Athens to the beaches of Crete is the large population of stray animals in Greece.
Greece is comprised of 6,000 islands and islets, which are scattered through the Greek Seas and offer diverse landscapes of neverending beaches, rolling sand dunes, wetlands, deltas, and even volcanoes. Just 227 of Greece’s islands are inhabited, but of that handful, all are home to a significant number of stray dogs, and it can be hard to know what to do about them.
From where they came from to the ways to help, our guide looks a little closer at the stray dog problem in Greece, because how can you not care about man’s best friend? Let’s get into it.
Why are there so many stray dogs in Greece?
It might be unusual to step out of your front and be greeted by a friendly neighborhood dog in most western countries, but there’s something about hot countries that is synonymous with extreme numbers of stray animals. This isn’t because dogs love the beach, although, in Greece, it’s clear to see that some do. Rather, there is a close link between stray animals, cultural attitudes, and the economy.
Stray populations usually get out of control when former pets no longer serve their purpose and are abandoned or “lost” by owners, leaving them to fend for themselves and reproduce to no end. The same can be said of Greece, but while many Western European countries have managed to control their stray animal populations, there are a number of reasons that Greece has been less successful in doing so.
In the UK, for example, stray dogs weren’t always an unfamiliar site. But government initiatives motivated by heightened care for image and the funds to support such efforts, meant strays have always been rounded up, spayed, neutered, rehomed, or put in shelters, rather than released back on the streets. Animal welfare laws, instated as early as the 80s, state that abandoning an animal, as well as failing to report the loss or theft of an animal, is punishable in a court of law in the UK. However, the situation is somewhat different in Greece.
Greece has only had a developed economy since the 1980s, and still, they’ve been riddled with crises and crashes for the last few decades. In the UK, the general cultural attitude towards dogs is also one of love and they’re often seen as family members and have been for decades. Although dogs are kept as pets in Greece and some people have a lot of love for stray animals, culturally, the Greek relationship to animals is a different one.
How do people feel about the stray dogs in Greece?
Keeping pets is a relatively new concept in Greece and with the majority of Greeks coming from humble rural backgrounds where animals were meant to have a purpose, a lot of these views still survive. Donkeys were for carrying things, cats were to kill rats, and dogs were to tend sheep. It wasn’t until the late seventies that dogs became fashionable pets in Greece, gifted to children on Christmas and lovers on Saint Valentine’s day.
However, when that puppy was no longer cute, or the heavy burden of feeding another mouth became an all too tangible reality, a lot of people would drive their dogs as far away from their homes as they could so that the animal wouldn’t be able to find its way back, and “set it free”. People took cats to the National Gardens in Athens too, and today, colonies of cats still lounge around in the sun near the Parliament Building.
When stray dog populations started to get out of hand in Greece, as in most civilized countries, every municipality instated a “dog catcher” and “dog pound”, just like they would have had in England, but just a few decades too late. Dog catchers would round up abandoned dogs and hold them in pounds for 90 days, putting them to sleep if no one claimed them in this time. Although arguably inhumane in today’s society, the process worked to control the population until the early 90s.
By this time, animal rights charities were on the rise. Countries like England and France, who had already got a hold over their stray animal population, had abandoned such cruel techniques. The real end to Greece’s solution came when an activist group inspected a particular dog pound in Athens that kept their dogs in miserable conditions. They visited undercover and filmed the scenes for public distribution.
On presenting their evidence to the local District Attorney, a warrant was issued for the local mayor’s arrest and he was charged with the “maltreatment of animals”, a very serious crime in Greece by this time. He was sentenced to several months in prison and almost every Greek municipality dissolved their dog pounds as a result, paving the way for stray dog populations to continue to multiply without restriction.
Had Greece’s impounded dogs all been spayed and neutered before being released, it could have been a different story. But with the Greek government facing its own problems, the funds weren’t there to facilitate such a huge project and with the ambivalent attitude of many Greeks towards dogs, public donations weren’t enough.
What are people doing to help stray dogs in Greece?
As we’ve stated, Greeks have been historically indifferent towards stray animals, which hasn’t helped with the problem. Still, the stray population remains a largely image-based issue for the government that they have tried to resolve with different techniques over the years, although their efforts have often backfired.
When Athens was set to host the Olympic Games in 2004, the municipal government knew that the sight of thousands of stray dogs living without care or control in the city streets would add insult to injury and make the Greeks appear to be uncivilized people. The government launched a plan to sterilize more than 10,000 stray dogs ahead of the games in 2003, dedicating 1.8 million Euros to the project in a bid to halt the growth of the stray population.
However, this would’ve been a 15-year plan, seeing as all of the released, spayed and neutered animals would still have to live out the rest of their lives on the city streets. Leading up to the games, dogs were interfering with the Olympic trials and many were even competing in the marathons, so the new municipal plan became to round up the city dogs and take them to farms or kennels outside of Athens, to then be brought back after the games were concluded.
What is thought to have actually happened is that 3,000 dogs were poisoned in Athens ahead of the games. Dog lovers say that the city authorities were responsible after many dogs disappeared from the center and never returned. It’s hard to believe the government could do such a thing, but its also hard to believe that a few fed-up neighbors could get together and execute a mass extinction at such a level.
Still, this might have solved the image problem temporarily, but 3,000 dogs removed from the streets wasn’t enough, and this didn’t do anything to slow down repopulation in every other region of Greece where the Olympics didn’t reach. There is now an estimated 1 million stray dogs in Greece. Animal welfare charities do their best to feed, vaccinate, and neuter as many as they can, but running off public donations means they can’t even put a dent in the problem.
How should you deal with stray dogs in Greece?
Strays might be regarded as street vermin by some, but dogs can have very gentle temperaments and are known to develop beautiful relationships with humans. They’ve become such a familiar part of the landscape in Greece, they’re unlikely to bother you, but you could come away from your Greek holiday with some lovely stories to tell about your encounters with stray dogs.
That said, there are some things to look out for. First of all, stray dogs can carry several diseases, that can go undetected but this doesn’t make them any less transmittable to humans. It’s also common for strays to be ridden with ticks, fleas, and general bacteria. Allowing stray dogs to get into contact with your own pets, could expose them to the same ailments.
As a general rule of thumb, you should keep a safe distance from stray dogs in Greece if possible. And if you do get into contact with their fur or saliva, it’s a good idea to wash your hands as soon as you can.
It’s not uncommon to want to feed stray animals either, especially if you see them in a bad state or begging for food, and providing a meal for a stray dog can often be very beneficial. However, you should always feed them away from hotels and restaurants, since animals will hang around if they know they might be fed and become a nuisance for the business owner. This could only result in bad consequences for the animal.
You should also avoid feeding large groups of stray dogs together. They can get very territorial and aggressive around food, and this could result in conflict. You should also leave while the animal is eating. Not only to avoid aggressive behavior but also to prevent potential attachment that the animal might feel to you.
Never let a stray into your home or rental apartment. Allowing a stray to get attached for a short period of time and then proceeding to abandon or kick them out again when you leave, will only result in more feelings of neglect.
If you ever happen upon an injured stray, you can ask tourist information or local business owners for the details of a local vet or animal welfare organization to contact. However, bear in mind, most taxi drivers aren’t willing to put stray animals into their cars and they’re not allowed on most public transport, so turning to a charity could be your best bet.
What should you do if you come across an aggressive stray dog?
Aggressive stray dogs are ones you should always avoid, no matter the circumstance. Look out for tell-tale signs in their body language to identify when it isn’t safe to approach. High, wagging tails are a sign of friendliness, as is a relaxed mouth, ears, and stance. However, a low or slow wagging tail, as well as a crouched stance, visible teeth, flat ears, and growling or barking are all signs of hostility.
If you come across an aggressive stray dog in Greece, keep the following steps in mind:
- Avoid sudden movements and don’t walk in the dog’s direction.
- If you can’t turn and walk away slowly (ie the way is blocked) stand still, try and look relaxed, and don’t do anything to aggravate the animal further like making loud noises.
- Do not run away, the dog is more likely to chase you.
- Avoid eye contact.
- Consider bending down very slowly to make yourself small and less intimidating.
- Make very gentle and affectionate noises.
If the animal doesn’t calm down or give you space to pass, try and ask a local or passerby for assistance.
Can you adopt a stray dog from Greece?
The best way to help the stray dog problem in Greece is by donating money to responsible animal welfare charities and following their work on social media. If you can, you could even adopt a stray animal from the streets of Greece or from a local shelter.
If you’re a resident in Greece, this process is as simple as getting the animal (should it allow) vaccinated, neutered, micro-chipped, and registered, as well as medically examined, before welcoming your new furry friend into your home. However, if you live overseas, it might not be so easy but you can still adopt a stray dog from Greece as a foreigner.
First things first, if the animal has come from the streets, you need to take it to the local vet for vaccinations, certificates of health, and a pet passport. If you’re taking the dog home from a shelter, they may do this for you or assist you in the process.
Next, you need to call the airline you plan to travel with a find out if they accept animals aboard the aircraft. All airlines have different guidelines and some may treat the animal as cargo, in which case you should read reviews about the animal safety precautions taken before proceeding. Some airlines allow animals to travel with passengers. Both options will incur a fee and you’ll need to purchase a ticket for your pet.
Finally, call your embassy back home and make sure you’ve covered all bases. You want to be told that there should be no problems going through customs and that foreign animals are welcomed into the country with all necessary documentation – but this won’t be the situation in every country. For entry into the US, for example, you’ll need rabies vaccinations on top of all the mandatory ones.
For more information, check out these charities in Greece for advice on how to treat stray dogs on your next vacation:
OIPA – This international organization for the protection of animals strives towards spreading information about the maltreatment and mass poisoning of stray dogs in Greece and how you can help.
Greek Animal Rescue – This UK-based charity helps abused and neglected strays in Greece, providing medical care, food, shelter, and rehoming efforts.
Save Zante Strays – Localised to Zante island, this group of activists works tirelessly on a volunteer basis to rehome Zante’s strays and encourage overseas adoptions.