“The numbers affected is catastrophic” - Impact of war on domestic animals in Ukraine
The full-scale invasion has not only devastated Ukrainians but also their animals, leaving a ‘catastrophic’ number of pets abandoned in the past year.
When war broke out in Ukraine on February 24 last year, and Russian missiles destroyed buildings and homes, people rushed to save civilians and animals from under the rubble and wreckage caused by the shelling.
While many fled the country as the conflict escalated, some stayed behind risking their lives to help their four-legged friends and others that had been left abandoned. Hundreds of dogs have died in shelters under occupation due to the lack of food and water, while others struggled to survive when owners did not have access to dog food to provide for them.
Ukraine, the second largest country in Europe, is home to a large number of pets. Sources suggest an estimated 5.5 million cats and 750,000 dogs were owned by Ukrainian families. The statistics show that as a result of the war in Ukraine, the number of animals in shelters near the frontline increased by 100%.
Domestic animals and their owners
Anastasiia Saakian, a Ukrainian dog trainer of 13 years based in Kyiv, explains the situation for animals on the ground since the Russian invasion.
Anastasiia, who owns three dogs and also volunteers at local dog shelters including Borodyanka and Sirius, told Harbingers’ Magazine the war has not only impacted her business but has resulted in new behavioural issues in the animals.
She is currently caring for her 14-year-old Belgian Malinois, a four-year-old border collie and half-breed stray, who was picked up from the streets by her mother. She said: “Not all, some dogs were not affected by the war at all, but some dogs were clearly affected and people had to help pull dogs out of various psychological states.”
Anastasiia shared that her mum’s dog stayed in a part of Kyiv, located near Irpin, a town heavily bombed and occupied during the first months of the full-scale invasion.
The dog has been there for only the first ten days of the invasion, but the stress she went through has affected her greatly, causing her to run and hide every time she would hear an explosion. Even after moving to another part of the city with her owner, the dog was still very afraid of loud noises.
Having two very resilient dogs of her own, Anastasiia suspects that her dogs’ calm behaviour caused her mum’s dog to calm down in the passing days. Right now, she says, the dog has stopped reacting to loud sounds, possibly because of her more resilient companions.
“It was only March when there was a risk of the Russians invading Kyiv and we were sitting in a bomb shelter – then I had no sessions because we were frantically looking for food for ourselves and for the dogs”, she said, highlighting that was the time where her dog training practice was really affected. She added that she and her family all lived together, and would run to the bomb shelter every evening experiencing everything as a collective.
The full-scale invasion has resulted in many deaths which include both people and animals. Anastasiia shared that she has several friends from Irpin whose dogs have died or got concussions because a shell landed in their yard. The dog trainer said that these risks are something those staying in Ukraine are still dealing with as the war continues, adding: “There is a risk of dying every day.”
Demand for Ukrainian shelters increases
UAnimals, a Ukrainian-based animal rights organisation which rescues animals in the country, has seen first-hand the impact on animals since the war began. The organisation, which shares updates on social media, has spoken with Harbingers’ Magazine about the impact war has had on Ukrainian animals and shelters.
A spokesperson from the group said: “We can say for sure that the number of animals in shelters has increased by two or three times, the situation on the streets is different.”
“There are frontline cities, or cities that were destroyed by the occupiers, in which when the evacuation team arrives, they see almost no people on the entire street, but there are a huge number of animals. One can say that the number of animals affected by the war, and the number of animals left on the street is catastrophic.”
A state shelter in the town of Borodyanka was abandoned by its human inhabitants in the first days of the full-scale invasion, who fled from the constant shelling and occupation. What was left were hundreds of dogs, locked up without any food or water. Something that shocked people like Anastasiia.
She said: "The dogs lived in Borodyanka for a month without food, without water, without people, I don’t know how they survived.” Around 300 hundred dogs died over the course of the month when they were left alone and the town was occupied by Russian military forces.
Anastasiia shared with Harbingers the first-hand experiences of volunteering to help the animals still alive, adding how “they didn’t die from bombs, they didn’t die from bullets, they died of hunger.”
At the beginning of April, after the de-occupation, Anastasiia described how volunteers came to Borodyanka and behind hundreds of animal corpses they found some surviving dogs.
Around 30 of them were on the brink of death, so had to be transported to private clinics in Kyiv. Others were transported to a shelter to recover with the help of professionals. There were vets who dealt with health problems, as well as people like Anastasiia – dog trainers and others specialising in animal behaviour – who were there to help dogs prepare for their relocation into new families and help them combat the chronic stress they were under.
The dog trainer said how all the dogs were later moved to Europe, and most of them have found new owners. She said that she had worked with the dogs for two months and around 97% of them were able to return to a normal state. Animals that have gone through “horrible experiences”, something a lot of people cannot even imagine, can be brought back to a normal state in a matter of months, but only with dedication and proper care provided by professionals, Anastasiia noted.
Behavioural Issues and Rehabilitation
UAnimals reported that “animals rescued during war are more vulnerable and need more attention than usual.”
Anastasiia herself also mentioned that the number of adopted dogs significantly grew since the war began, which means that people think more before taking a pet, and more ‘conscious’ pet ownership has increased. People started noticing the animals more, realising that the resources and help they can provide are needed now more than ever.
‘There is one global problem – these dogs are afraid of explosions. That is, when explosions begin, they’re stressed, and they have a noise phobia. You just need to work more with such dogs and that’s all,” Anastasiia said.
She has shared how “every dog has its own story” with some being born on the streets and being used to human contact, while others born further away from busy streets are not used to humans at all. Those who grew up amongst people are more easily trained and adapted to a busy life with an owner in the city. Those who are not used to contact are harder to train and adapt, but every animal can find its owner.
“We [Ukrainians] are guided by the natural desire to help and save, while important nuances are overlooked,” Artem Akhmetsafin, a specialist in dog psychology and behaviour, told Vogue.
PTSD in animals: how do four-legged animals survive the war and how to help them?
Zoo psychologists have stated that PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is present in a lot of Ukrainian animals following the Russian invasion.
PTSD in animals manifests itself largely in the same way that it does in humans: chronic anxiety, always being on guard, avoidance of individuals of their own species and places or situations, decreased interest in surroundings, separation anxiety, complete apathy or aggression.
But though a lot of animals are affected negatively, with the right care they can recover. Just as Anastasiia’s story about dogs from Borodyanka has shown, after two months 97% of the dogs recovered, with the other 3% “just needing a bit more work with them.”
Everyday life and politics in dog sports
Away from the situation of abandoned animals, Ukrainians, amid the war are trying to continue their lives as normal, including taking part in dog sports competitions. Anastasiia commented how “this is not just about the development of [dog] sports, but also an opportunity to distract from the horror of war, to distract dogs.”
She described how some people from other countries were “sad” that Russians were banned to join the dog sporting events, primarily arguing that dog sports are not about politics and should be a separate discussion.
To those people, Anastasiia said: “War is not about politics. War is about suffering, primarily innocent people and animals. Children, people and animals. Animals cannot be out of politics because they die.”
The dog trainer said that shelters are “surviving as best as they can” amid the ongoing war and that people have been donating “much less” food in recent months. She added: “Whole trucks came to bring dog food for shelters, now there is no such thing.”
“There are organisations that, for example, do sterilisation for free, but this is not enough. There are many shelters, but there are still many dogs…Unfortunately, it [war] still continues and there will be even more dogs. We still do not know how many dogs are running in the East of the country.”