The Indian government has finally banned import of dogs for breeding and any other commercial purposes, heeding years of advocacy. The Director General of Foreign Trade issued a notification on Monday, mandating that the animal can be brought into the country only for defence and policing purposes, for research and development, and if it is a family pet.

Welcome as the ruling is, animal welfare groups say, it can only be a first step towards a more effective control and management plan.

“Anything that is banned cultivates a thriving black market,” said Shirin Merchant, a leading canine behaviourist and trainer in Mumbai. “What will strengthen the law is if we regulate breeders by allowing licences only to those who practise ethically i.e. practise gene selection, take care of the mother and the puppies, maintain hygienic conditions and so on.”

Unethical breeding

Absence of stringent import regulations had created a callous market for pedigree dogs in India.

Working dogs that are native to cold climes, such as Siberian Huskies and St Bernard’s, were flown in and made to suffer the tropical heat. Moreover, as the demand for pure pedigrees became widespread, they were bred within a closed gene pool so that they possessed the traits considered the breed standard. Over generations this left many breeds susceptible to painful illnesses.

While Merchant welcomes the ban, her concern is that cutting off fresh genes to the breeding pool will result in more inbreeding. “We have no breeder who can guarantee a Labrador without hip or elbow dysplasia in India,” she said, referring to the abnormality that can cause arthritis. “Dogs with genetic medical problems and bad temperament are the first ones to find themselves out of a home.”

Regulating and clamping down on unethical breeders, while encouraging and licensing home breeding (where the litter comes from a cared-for family pet) would be one way around this.

Priya Agarwal of YODA (Youth in Defence of Animals), an animal welfare group in Mumbai, agrees that banning import of exotic dogs is the first step, but is concerned how the law will be upheld.

“There is already a ban on puppies less than 60 days old getting on an airplane, but the certificate is often fudged and puppies as young as 20 or 30 days old make the trip,” said Agarwal. “Will breeders not be able to fudge papers to show breeding dogs are family pets? Will family pets be stopped from coming into the country if there is no discrimination?”

One of her recommendations is allowing a special licence for keeping more than two or three dogs. “There’s a rule in Pune that doesn’t allow citizens to keep more than three dogs in an apartment. Something like this would help distinguish genuine NRI family pets from dogs smuggled in for breeding.”

Educating the public

YODA rescues animals from unethical puppy mills, where dogs are bred intensively and inhumanely, and rehomes them with a strict neutering/spaying clause. Some recent rescues have included bulldogs that were forced to litter four times in three years, the stress of which caused the dog’s reproductive system to be evicted from the body. “The pros of the law are that sealing our borders will give us time to clean up,” Agarwal said. “There are already more dogs in our shelters than there are puppy-loving homes.”

There is an argument that the import of exotic breeds is leading to the over-population of stray dogs, but Agarwal thinks the two issues are not connected.

“A spaying and neutering programme is the only way to control the stray population, as shown by the success of the programme in south Mumbai,” she said. “There is no harm in wanting a pedigree and I feel strays lead a happier, more natural lifestyle and do not need our intervention but for birth and fatal disease control and in case of accidents. A pet dog just sits and sleeps at home and gets two walks a day, while a stray lives his natural life of scavenging, pack behaviour with freedom of movement. It’s better for a family to adopt a pedigree than force upon it a stray dog whose needs it can’t understand.”

What the ban does give is time to find homes for existing pedigree dogs, weed out the bad genetics, shut down unethical breeders, mix gene pools to get a healthier strain and educate public about the unsuitability of breeds such as Huskies and St Bernard’s to Indian climate and lifestyles.