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Divorce sees rise in pets left at shelters

GROWING NUMBERS of dogs and cats are being deposited at animal shelters because of divorces between their owners, according to the first research by the RSPCA into the hidden costs of marital break-up. At some animal shelters, more than 60% of dogs and 40% of cats are facing uncertain futures after becoming caught in the crossfire of relationship breakdowns.

RSPCA officials blame the trend, which they said is "significant and rising", on the greater social acceptability of divorce and an irresponsible attitude towards pets among twentysomething couples.

Many smaller rescue organisations, including canine breed rescues are inundated with unwanted pets, while city dog and cat pounds are at breaking point as once loved pets are turfed out onto the streets by their owners.Many unwanted pets face horrible fates if their owners cannot even be bothered to take them to a rescue centre, as illustrated by the discovery of a dead cocker spaniel, with a 22lb weight lashed to its neck, at the bottom of the River Test near Southampton last week.

Sally Neale, manager of the RSPCA animal centre in West Hatch, near Taunton in Somerset, said: "One month we had so many animals being returned by couples from failed relationships that my staff said I should be doing marriage guidance on the side.

"Between a quarter and a half of the animals are here because of a breakdown in a relationship. Young couples set up home together and want to cement their relationship with a dog or a cat — then they have difficulties. They give the animal back because neither can be bothered with it. It seems that pets have just become an extension of the throwaway society — it really is a problem. Some couples seem genuinely sad about it, but a lot seem to be able to return a pet to us without a backward glance."

At the RSPCA’s Norwich animal centre, two-thirds of the dogs come from "broken homes", while at Gonsal Farm animal centre, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire, the figures are 50% for dogs and 35% for cats.

Large numbers of smaller pets, such as gerbils, hamsters and budgerigars are also being cared for by the RSPCA and also smaller charities and breed rescue societies after being rendered homeless by couples undergoing relationship break-ups.

Researchers for the RSPCA said that other changes in British society are leading to further unhappiness in the pet population. With different branches of families often living in different parts of the country, homeless pets are less likely to find a new life with a relative.

Roslyn Varnes, a spokeswoman for the RSPCA, said: "If someone is having difficulties looking after their pet there is often nobody able to step in and look after it for them."

Jackie Ballard, director-general of the RSPCA, said: "For people who break up, the pet, like the furniture, is no longer an integral part of the relationship and is no longer wanted. But pets are a responsibility that you can’t just get rid of when you are bored."