The Street Dogs of Ecuador

Photo Credit: Dr. Nancy Kay

My husband and I recently spent two weeks in Ecuador. Our itinerary included the Galapagos Islands (lucky us!) and countryside in the Andes Mountains. In addition to seeing incredible landscapes and an over-the-top amazing array of animals, we were treated to the warmth and hospitality of the Ecuadorian people.

Of particular interest to me were the street dogs I observed while on the mainland. I refer to them as “street dogs” because that is where I saw them- in and along the streets. How I never witnessed death or injury caused by the many cars, trucks, motorcycles, and buses whizzing by them is beyond me. Much like ravens and crows, these street dogs always managed to get out of the way just in the nick of time. Nonetheless, I did a lot of holding my breath while observing this phenomenon.

There were so, so many dogs. To give you a sense of just how many, picture an average city block. Now, picture walking this block and seeing 25 to 30 dogs lounging on the sidewalks, crossing the street, looking for food, scrounging in garbage bags, and socializing and playing with one another. In the large city of Quito, most of the dogs were rather aloof and always seemed to be on the move with clear business to attend to. In the smaller villages, the dogs were generally more social with us and content to simply hang out.

While the numbers of dogs didn’t change much as we moved from town to town, what did change was their general appearance. For example, in one town it was evident that German Shepherds dominated the gene pool. In another town we saw predominantly small Poodle crosses, and I was amused by the mostly Shar Pei’ish facial features I observed in another village.

I observed some dogs with skin disease and the occasional dog who was thin or had a significant disability. Otherwise, these dogs appeared remarkably healthy and thrifty. And, unlike what I would see here in the United States, there was no canine obesity to be found.

I talked with several Ecuadorians about these street dogs (I had lots of questions.). I learned that, for the most part, the dogs are owned- although they are in the street, someone lays claim to them. In most cases dogs are owned solely for the purpose of property protection. So, while there is a defined human animal bond, it differs significantly from what most of us are used to. In spite of this “business-like” relationship, I watched many dogs wag their tails and wiggle with excitement when interacting with their owners, even when such affection was not obviously reciprocated.

So, while the dogs go home at night, most of their daylight hours are spent out on the streets. I was told that most dogs receive a modicum of food from their owners, but most must rely on food found on the streets to sustain themselves. Most of these dogs have never tasted commercially prepared dog food as it is cost prohibitive for the majority of people.

With rare exception, the dogs I saw were in tact (not neutered). Many of the females looked like they were nursing puppies. Given this, I was surprised that I saw no puppies out on the streets. When I asked about this, I was told a couple of different things. I heard that the puppies are kept close to home. I also heard that they are killed. I suspect that both scenarios are true.

Our time was spent solely in Ecuador, but I’ve since learned that this street dog phenomenon exists throughout Latin America. When I asked some Ecuadorians about neutering as a means of controlling the dog population, some stated that they agree that there are too many dogs and something should be done. Others explained that the indigenous people living in the Andes Mountains desire many dogs for purposes of protection. Additionally, they would not be in favor of their dogs undergoing surgical castration and the loss of their testicles. This prompted me to think that Zeuterin, a chemical sterilization product that leaves the testicles and some testosterone in tact might be a reasonable compromise.

The street dogs I saw in Ecuador have made a lasting impression on me, and I still have so many questions about them. For example, why, in spite of the fact that there are so many dogs, did I never see even a hint of aggression directed towards humans or other dogs? How old do these dogs live to be? And, isn’t it intriguing that dogs existing on such an inconsistent and completely unbalanced diet appear so thrifty? What happens when these dogs become infirmed or a female gets into trouble delivering her pups? Are they left to suffer and die, or are they somehow humanely put to sleep? Hmmm, something tells me I will need to return to Latin America and learn more about the street dogs living there!

Have you ever observed a “street dog” phenomenon during your travels?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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16 Comments on “The Street Dogs of Ecuador

  1. Thank you for your article. I know you asked for others experience in third world countries. Unfortunately this is happening in Southern California, especially in South Los Angeles. It looks like a third world country with dogs living on the streets not fixed, the females having puppies, dogs with skin diseases, starving, hurt, sick etc. Three ladies who live there take in as many dogs as they can to get them fixed etc.and get them adopted. ( It is definitely an act of love because they have no money. My other rescue friend helps raise funds for them.) The head of the City shelters is ignoring the problem. A group of rescues have picketed the Mayor demanding he fire her but nothing happens or changes. Also we have a very big problem with dogs being dumped in the desert to die. Pregnant dogs giving puppies, abused dogs, starving dogs. My friend, who by herself has tried to save as many as she can, started The Desert Dog Project. Recently she was notified by a trucker driving through the desert saw a young pup laying on the side of the road emaciated and had been shot with her leg blown off and the other leg the paw shot and bones shattered. She took her immediately to the vet to save her.This is heart breaking!! She even called me one day asking me if I knew of any horse rescues because she found a horse dumped in the desert!!

  2. I really loved your piece on street dogs, so many dog owners, vets in my country (New Zealand) and I suspect in yours, have fairly strict attitudes on ownership/strays, population and health responsibilities, but dogs live with humans under an infinite range of management and indepence.
    I remember a Samoan friend of mine laughing at the obesity so evident in pet dogs when in his homeland such animals would be eyed up by neighbours looking for a good feed.
    In some rural communities there can be quite a relaxed attitude toward dogs of doubtful or community “ownership” unless they were suspected of sheep killing, in which case they would be shot on sight.
    I have not done much travelling since the 1970’s but a looser ownership attitude with owners not showing much interest or care, was pretty common among urban poor.
    A town planner trying to come up with a definition for private spaces and prop in erty rights in urban slums amd favales, observed the dogs seemed to have agreed views on property and boundaries.
    Sadly it would seem dogs need to e in a human society that is well off materially, and exposed to a doggie culture, if they are to prosper.

  3. Oh I so enjoyed your article and those who responded. My husband and I lived in India and Sri Lanka back in the 90’s and saw the “street dogs” everywhere. I believe they were called “Pie dogs” in India. I saw many dogs with skin diseases and of course the over breeding was so sad. In Sri Lanka it seemed to be worse as the Sri Lankans were fighting two wars when we lived there. I saw many dogs with bullet holes or worse struggling to live. I was told that when the soldiers became bored they practiced shooting dogs or cats. So sad. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country and believes the animals will either live or die so no attempt is made to help them. Now privately owned animals have a bit better care but few are spayed or neutered. I also saw little aggression among the dogs except when a bitch was in heat. I would try to gather many of the dogs in my neighborhood to take them to have their shots given and spay or neutered. I found one vet trained Australia who would help me out but refused to put badly injured animals to sleep. I paid out of my own pocket and hopefully helped a few animals along the way.

  4. I observed this in Cusco, and learned, as you did, that the dogs belong to someone…same thing in Mexico.
    I love traveling to these countries, but mostly they don’t have the same attitude about pets and other animals like some Americanos. Partly I think it’s poverty. It doesn’t mean things can’t change and the person that commented that they have friends who are spaying and neutering dogs in a country like that are to be commended. It’s difficult to see dogs that are hungry or ill! It’s also surprising the see a family of 3-4 people all riding a motorcycle together, tearing through the streets in one of these places too.
    Even in our country there is disregard, cruelty, and abandonment of dogs.
    Hopefully the world can keep progressing toward the realization of the interconnected relationship of humans and animals.

  5. We lived in Belize for 25 years and street and village dogs were everywhere. Most were yellow/brown, mid-sized, long legs, long muzzles, short coats. Many expats like ourselves tried to adopt puppies from street dogs. Sadly, this was not usually very successful — too many parasites, poor maternal nutrition, very weak puppies. A vet we knew well there estimated that female dogs on the streets only live to be about 2 years old. According to her, the main reason was too many puppies too young, parasites (heartworm was rampant), malnutrition and disease. Most street dogs were not vaccinated and every year or so, a child would die from rabies transmitted by a dog. We were once visited by a sick dog in our yard and persuaded the owners to take her to the vet. She was put down as were all of her puppies and rabies was confirmed via a lab in Panama. At regular intervals, the village, town or city would advise people to confine “their” dogs while a mass poisoning was conducted overnight. Life in a developing country!

  6. About 5 years ago I traveled to Cuba with a group of students from Sonoma State University. There were some thin dogs on the streets. Some of the students started saving part of their meal to give to the dogs. When our local guide opserve this he said ” oh you don’t have to do that because the army comes through regularly and shoots them.
    It has been my observation that you can tell how to well a country is doing by looking at how thin or fat the dogs & horses. Ruth Waltenspiel

  7. I admire everyone’s courage. I specifically do not go to Third World countries b/c I can’t handle how the animals live.

  8. Nancy, Thanks for this thoughtful and heartfelt blog about your experience with street dogs in third world countries.

    This has been my experience as well. I’ll speak to the non-aggressive dogs and all off leash. When we get out of the way, dogs don’t fight. When they know that they can flee, there is no need for aggression. They literally live off the streets getting food when they can and they don’t fight over their food. They move on. The only time I saw a fight or beginning of a fight was over a female in season.

    They are peaceful and you also rarely if ever see a dead dog on the side of the road. They are very savvy street dogs in every sense of the word. It speaks so much to how we’ve domesticated them with expectations of living in our little boxes we call home, IS little to them. We cage our dogs, we leash our dogs, we don’t socialize our dogs and when we do it’s mostly improperly and we leave our dogs home while we are away at work, alone and then we wonder why our dogs have so many issues. Our dogs aren’t really allowed to be dogs in many cultures and why we have so many problem dogs.

    These dogs are experts at reading body languages of each other and of humans and know how to stay out of harms way. They can feel so they don’t need to fight or get anxious. We can learn a lot from these street dogs. BTW, have you read the book “Charlie The Dog Who Came In From the Wild”? It’s wonderful by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma, head of the International School for Canine Psychology and Behavior.

    I know you must have had a fantastic time and well deserved.

  9. Dr. Nancy, I’m actually pleased to hear your experience in Quito. I was there a long time ago, around 1988-89, and I observed really emaciated street dogs. I attributed this to the fact that the city, or at least the parts of it I visited, were clean and free of garbage. I compared that to Lima, Peru, where the dogs looked close to ideal weight, which I attributed to the garbage, everywhere. I did speak to a few people in both countries about the dogs, and apparently at the time it was believed that when too many dogs became a problem, as in “dog packs,” they were poisoned or electrocuted. Puppies of mothers on the street probably very often die in the streets, as it takes a bit of time to become street-wise. I imagine old dogs that don’t move quickly enough also often meet this fate.

  10. Hi Joanne and thank you for your comments. I really did not perceive any breed related differences in behaviors and activities during my travels, but great question. I will definitely look up, “lives of streeties.” Thank you for this lead.

  11. My colleague Sindhoor Pangal is in the middle of an ongoing observational study of street dogs in Bangalor, India. It is interesting to read of someone observing similar things. If you Google, “lives of streeties,” you can find her study blog.
    One thing I have wondered, and maybe you will have some insight in to this, is how breed differences might affect activity levels in street dogs. In India, they have bred without interference for many years and have pretty much reverted to what is probably a primitive genotype. I wonder if you saw any differences at all between dogs in different towns that might be attributed to their somewhat different breed makeup? Sindhoor saw a pretty low activity level in all the dogs in her study. But I know, with purebred dogs, that some need more activity than others because of what they were bred to do.
    Anyway, just something I have been thinking about.

  12. Love this post! As a CPDT, I’m always looking at the relationship between humans and dogs when I visit other cultures. What you experienced in Ecuador, I’ve seen many times throughout India and Asia. In India, the street dogs all look the same–long legs, long tails, about 35 pounds, expressive ears and a neutral color, usually mid-brown. I call this “the natural dog”–what dogs would look like without selective breeding for physical characteristics. And like you, I found the lack of aggression remarkable. It’s a testament to the species’ general personality. They’re social and collaborative and have found ways to handle conflict without violence. Most of the time. I’m sure there are scuffles, of course. But nothing compared to what happens when dogs are raised the way they often are here in the U.S.–behind closed doors/in backyards, apart from others in their group. How can they possible learn what they need to know under these circumstances?

  13. There is more and more research being done into street dogs and their health and behaviour. You can read about them in Dogs, by Ray and Lorna Coppinger and learn more about the research done by scientists who present at SPARCS. Street dogs are a normal part of human history and inhabitation and it is only the past fifty years where we no la part of our landscape in Europe and North America. Street dogs are very well adapted to living off the leavings of our society and when removed leave a niche which can end up being filled by rats, non human primates, raccoons and other scavenger species who may be more dangerous to us than street dogs.

    I would like to point out that when people see street dogs, beach dogs or other feral or semi feral dogs when they travel really should not touch or interact with these dogs. Most of these dogs are not vaccinated against diseases such as rabies and there is a risk to travellers that they will be exposed to diseases that could cause them harm. Common diseases and illnesses that you could be exposed to include a wide variety of parasites such as worms or ticks (and specifically parasites that we don’t see in North America and thus will be hard to treat when you get home!), fungal diseases, as well as rabies, camphylobacter and distemper. Just as we would not handle wildlife at home, it is important to remember that street dogs in foreign countries are wildlife, and need to be permitted to live their lives without our interference by touching, feeding or handling them.

  14. You will likely find it interesting that the vet for whom I work and her husband, who is also a vet, have been spending time there also. They have set up a program to neuter as many dogs as possible and of course go the chemical route. At this point, I think they have neutered at least 200 dogs, but it may be more.They also have a foundation there called Amici Canis, are working with a delightful and passionate vet there, and are trying to fund a small facility for neutering and caring of street dogs. It’s very cool! :-)

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