Turkey is a culturally distinct country in the Middle East, occupying a unique geographical position on the Anatolian Peninsula and a small region of the Balkans. It might be better known for its architecture, cuisine, and coastlines, but one of the first things you’ll notice, whether you’re walking the streets of Istanbul or Cappadocia, is the large population of stray dogs in Turkey.
Surrounded by the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean, Turkey has acted as both a bridge and a barrier between Europe and Asia, with a capital that sits on both continents. Istanbul is one of the most vibrant cities in the world, but it’s also home to one of the highest concentrations of stray animals, with an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 dogs and cats roaming the streets.
Our guide takes a closer look at the stray dog crisis in Turkey from how they got there to what’s being done to manage overpopulation and what you can do to help. Let’s get started.
Why are there so many stray dogs in Turkey?
While many developing countries harbor high numbers of stray dogs as a result of neglect, Turkey’s problem is a little different. Sadly, some pet owners do discard dogs in Turkey. It’s easier to adopt a dog in Turkey than in many other nations and even “dangerous breeds” could be homed before the “dangerous dogs” bill was passed at the beginning of 2022. Still, this means the vetting process for dog ownership is not extensive.
Dogs can be bought from pet shops in Turkey and puppies that are bought at the beginning of summer can sometimes be dumped by the end of the season when they no longer serve their purpose. However, Turks of all cultural and political affinities seem to adore animals and are notoriously compassionate toward stray dogs and cats, but why hasn’t this necessarily helped with overpopulation?
Feeding and nurturing stray dogs and cats in Turkey might not be a problem, but when these animals aren’t neutered, vaccinated, or clean, their populations are invited to thrive, and with them, so are diseases and infections. The majority of stray dogs in Turkey are born to the streets, according to the Kalkan Association for the Protection of Street Animals.
Several organizations are now doing their best to control populations of strays in Turkey. Yet, the people of Turkey were once misdirected in their treatment of the street animals and unneutered street dogs remain the primary reason for out-of-control populations.
Islam preaches compassion towards animals, especially cats who are believed to be ritually clean, welcomed into many homes and mosques, but Turks adore dogs too. With more than 99 percent of the Turkish population being Muslim, it’s clear to see why love for strays has been widely translated into Turkish culture and even the laws.
Kind strangers feed and nurture stray dogs, and even build elaborate streetside shelters for cats and dogs where food scraps and water are supplied to the animals on a daily basis. However, unless they’re taken off the streets and spayed, which many people don’t have the resources to facilitate, the stray problem is exacerbated.
How do people feel towards stray dogs in Turkey?
As revealed by a recent survey from Turkey’s Interior Ministry, the majority of people in Turkey do not find stray animals to be a threat and much of the Turkish population expresses compassion toward their street dogs. Turkish animals are protected by Turkish law and there are even cafés and metros where stray dogs are welcomed and cared for.
The same survey revealed that more than 80 percent of people say they love stray animals, only around 30 percent of Turks find stray dogs to be dangerous, and less than 40 percent of participants have ever been attacked by a street animal. Turkey exercises a “no kill, no capture” law toward all stray animals and there are a number of organizations working in the major cities to catch, neuter, and release stray animals to control their numbers.
Yet, this feeling hasn’t always been shared by the government. Turkish authorities have been exercising mass killings of Instanbul’s street dogs since 1909. Protests against such annihilations transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where euthanizing and even holding a stray dog captive is illegal.
However, the end of 2021 saw President Erdogan order Tukey’s beloved stray dogs into shelters, dubbed ‘death camps’ by animal welfare campaigners, to be killed or left to starve in one of the world’s largest “dog genocides”. This came after a four-year-old girl was left in critical condition following an attack by a pair of Pitbulls.
Facing severe backlash from campaigners and the public, Erdogan responded by passing a regulation against “dangerous dog breeds” instead, banning the breeding of American Staffordshire Terriers, American Bull Dogs, American Pitbull Terriers, and others. Still, there remains worry about the safety of stray animals in forced shelters and unlawful mass poisonings in certain regions of the country.
How should you deal with stray dogs in Turkey?
They might be viewed as a minor threat by some in Turkey and cared for by many, but that isn’t to say stray dogs don’t come with dangers. You usually don’t have to fear domesticated animals and dogs can have very gentle temperaments, capable of developing strong bonds with humans. However, strays are still essentially wild animals and their behavior and health status cannot be predicted.
Diseases and infections carried by stray dogs can easily be transmitted to humans and aren’t always easy to detect. Rabies, for example, is a rare but dangerous brain infection that affects the nervous system in animals and humans. It is most commonly contracted from a bite or animal scratch and in over 95 percent of global cases, dogs are responsible.
Human rabies is rare, but around 200 cases are reported in animals in Turkey each year and the disease is often wrongly diagnosed and mistreated as tetanus. Limited treatment has led to rabies-related deaths in Turkey in recent years and something as small as a scratch from a rabid dog could prove fatal.
Early rabies can be near-impossible to detect, so it’s wise to keep broken skin away from dogs and their saliva, avoid play-fighting with stray dogs for the risk of scratches and bites, and never purposefully agitate an animal. Stray dogs are also commonly ridden with ticks and fleas which could expose you or your pets to the same infestation. If you come into contact with a stray dog, you should always wash your hands and skin as soon as possible, and check your pet’s fur for critters.
It’s not unusual to feed stray dogs in Turkey and they might approach you for food, but if you want to feed them, do it away from other dogs, restaurants, and hotels to avoid territorial aggression between strays and to not upset business owners. You’ll find most dogs to be familiar with humans and keen for companionship. However, some street dogs will be more wary, having experienced hardship, neglect, and even abuse. Diseases like rabies can also prompt unwarranted aggression in strays.
You can usually identify an aggressive dog from its body language. You shouldn’t go near a dog that hasn’t seen you approaching as this could make them feel vulnerable and under threat. If a dog has bright eyes, a high and wagging tail, and relaxed ears, mouth, and stance, these are all signs that it might be safe to approach.
On the other hand, a low tail, or even a slowly wagging tail, as well as a crouched stance, flat ears, exposed teeth, and of course, growling or barking, all indicated hostility and you should keep a distance. You might be familiar with dogs, but strays are especially territorial and could be defending land, food, or their young.
Follow these steps if you encounter a potentially aggressive stray dog in Turkey:
- Don’t make sudden movements to startle the animal and avoid walking in its direction.
- If you can’t turn around and walk calmly away, stay still, exhibit relaxed body language, and don’t look the dog in the eye – dogs can interpret human fear as a threat.
- If the dog still wants to approach, slowly bend down to appear less intimidating and make calming, affectionate noises.
- Let the animal sniff you without reaching out suddenly or trying to touch the dog.
- If you’re still stuck in an uncomfortable environment with a stray dog, don’t run away but ask a passerby for assistance or call for help if necessary.
What are people doing to help stray dogs in Turkey?
Thanks to widespread campaigns, backed by the public, prominent figures, and popular news outlets, 2004 saw the Turkish government pass a law requiring local officials to rehabilitate rather than annihilate stray dogs. The Animal Protection Law No. 5199 states a no kill, no capture policy, and unlawful euthanization are prosecutable offenses.
Turks, and especially residents of bustling Istanbul, have seen street dogs as fellow citizens ever since, but far more needs to be done to protect the livelihood of stray animals and slow population growth.
On a public level, Turks are known to do all they can to prevent stray animals from going hungry, and this was actually demanded by the Turkish Interior Ministry in the wake of Covid-19 outbreaks in 2020. Water and food scraps are put out all over the cities to cater to the large populations of stray cats and dogs, while animal welfare organizations work on a wider scale to sterilize strays.
Vaccines, as well as emergency and advanced care for injured stray animals, are also widely available, especially in Istanbul, where they operate a designated program for overseeing the large populations. You’ll notice many stray dogs have ear tags, which indicate that they’ve been vaccinated and neutered and, in turn, encourages people to be more comfortable with feeding and caring for them. However, incidents like stray dog attacks threaten the protection of these animals and rehoming efforts are also vital.
The Municipality of Konya in the Anatolian heartland sets a fine example for other Turkish cities, and countries struggling around the world from soaring populations of stray dogs, by paying out a monthly allowance to people who have adopted dogs from their shelters. The “Friends of Animals’ initiative was launched in 2017 and has seen almost 7,000 stray animals find homes in just five years.
The local government pays out 250 TL ($15) per month to those who have adopted a dog from a registered shelter. This is limited to one dog per household in the city, but as many as three dogs per family in rural parts of Konya.
Can you adopt a stray dog from Turkey?
Stray animals seem to live in harmony with much of the population in Turkey – wandering in and out of cafés, stealing the show, and being showered with love in the meantime. It’s enough to reaffirm your faith in humanity but it is not all sunshine and rainbows for Turkey’s stray pets.
They might look more pampered than in other developing countries, but you’ll still see stray dogs in Turkey with untreated wounds, nasty infections, or badly healed ailments. They can also go hungry and cold with so many of them to care for. Getting stray animals off the streets is one way to help.
If you’re a Turkish resident, adopting a stray dog can be as easy as opening your doors and getting the animal vaccinated, neutered, and checked over for diseases before welcoming it as a house guest. If you have a private residence in Turkey as a foreigner, the same applies. However, things can get a little tricky if you want to bring a stray dog back to your home country.
Once you’ve made sure your new friend is happy and healthy, you’ll need to start the process of getting their paperwork which can take over three months, depending on where you’re going. You’ll need to obtain a vaccination booklet and health certificate from a verified veterinarian, and if you’re headed to Europe, Australia, or North America, you’ll need a negative rabies titer test from a lab to be approved by the local government before you go. The test must be performed at least 30 days after a rabies vaccination but no less than three months before travel. This goes down to just 15 days for North America.
To leave Turkey with a pet, you’ll also need a permit from your local Veteriner Sinir Kontrol Noktasi, the Veterinary Border Control body. You’ll need to present your passport, travel booking, your pet’s documents, and the animal itself to obtain this. The fees for bringing a dog aboard an aircraft vary, but for Turkish Airlines, for example, the minimum fee for a short flight is $140 with a small animal, while transit flights carry a minimum fee of $300.
If you want to adopt a stray dog from Turkey but you’re not located in the country, animal welfare charities can help you with this but the process will be more time-consuming. If you can’t collect the animal yourself, you can use social media pages and charities to look for volunteers to bring your new pet to you.
There are several useful charities in Turkey that can offer more information about adopting dogs and other ways to help. Find out more below:
Animals Friends of Turkey (AFOT) – This UK charity is devoted to finding forever homes for abused and abandoned dogs from the streets of Turkey.
Kalkan Association for the Protection of Street Animals (KAPSA) – As well as educating residents in the Kalkan region about how to properly care for and protect stray dogs, KAPSA also offers advice for rehoming stray animals in Turking and abroad.
Koycegiz Dog Shelter in Turkey – Welcoming volunteers and encouraging adoption, Koycegiz is just one of many dog shelters in Turkey caring for abandoned animals and trying to offer them a better life than one on the streets.
Turkey Animal Rescue Organisation – This non-profit organization is based out of the UK and strives toward the prevention of animal cruelty and overpopulation in Turkey through campaigning, crowdfunding, and rehoming initiatives.
Pets in Turkey – This Swiss-based charity organization works hard to educate other European nations on the contradictory animal protection laws in Turkey and help unite stray dogs with forever homes.