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Animal shelters seeing glut of Chihuahuas

The once-fashionable little canines are replacing pit bulls as the breed most often left at shelters.

December 10, 2009|By Maria L. La Ganga

Reporting from San Francisco — If every dog has its day, the Chihuahua's, it seems, may be on the wane.

Representatives from half a dozen Bay Area animal shelters and rescue groups asked the public's help Wednesday in remedying a serious statewide glut of the petite pooches.

"All the shelters in California are seeing an upswing in Chihuahua impounds," Deb Campbell, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco animal care and control department, said in an interview. "It's been a slow and steady climb. . . . We call it the Paris Hilton syndrome."

A third of the dogs held at San Francisco's city shelter are all or part Chihuahua. New ones have come in every day for the last year. If the trend continues, officials said, the shelter would become 50% Chihuahua within months.

The East Bay SPCA in Oakland has already hit that mark, said Executive Director Allison Lindquist. Two weeks ago, her shelter converted a meet-and-greet area into a kennel so it could squeeze in more of the high-strung little specimens.

And at the Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo, "the number of Chihuahuas has eclipsed pit bulls as the most common breed," Senior Vice President Scott Delucchi said as he clutched Toffee, a sweater-clad, 10-year-old mix.

San Francisco dubbed the outreach "Chihuahuapalooza": 50 yipping, shivering canines jammed into a small lobby with TV cameras rolling.

Meanwhile, as Chorizo, Buddy and James Bond were introduced in Northern California, animal officials were meeting in Los Angeles to hatch plans for "Flying Chihuahuas, the Sequel."

There are so many Chihuahuas in Los Angeles city shelters that the animal services agency airlifted 25 last week to Nashua, N.H., where the local Humane Society found all of them homes within a day.

The dogs had been bathed, sterilized, tested for heartworms and fitted with miniature coats before their flight took off, said Kathy Davis, interim general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services. The operation was funded by actress Katherine Heigl and the Jason Debus Heigl Foundation. It was so successful that the city is preparing to fly out 40 more as soon as donations are procured and the Chihuahuas are readied.

Gail Buchwald, senior vice president at the ASPCA adoption center in New York City, calls California's Chihuahua oversupply an "unusual situation." Her shelter doesn't have a single Chihuahua.

Animal lovers blame Hollywood for California's surplus.

The pint-sized pups with outsized personalities grew more popular after Reese Witherspoon's character in the 2001 movie "Legally Blonde" accessorized her Pepto Bismol-tinted wardrobe with a Chihuahua named Bruiser.

Paris Hilton's Tinkerbell was a regular on the "The Simple Life" reality TV series. Then came the 2008 Disney comedy "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," in which a pampered dog named Chloe gets lost while on vacation in Mexico.

And who can forget Gidget -- the star of a popular series of Taco Bell commercials -- who last summer succumbed to a stroke at the age of 15.

Such media saturation fueled demand for the dogs, and breeders overdid it, San Francisco's Campbell said.

"Shelters like ours are seeing a big upswing in owner-surrendered animals because of the bad economy," she said. "It's interesting and alarming that so many of our dogs are Chihuahuas."

But not surprising. After the dazzle wears off, unprepared owners are left with pets that Kim Durney, administrative director of Grateful Dogs Rescue, described as "small, fragile, door-dashers, nervous, not a good fit for families."

Her point, echoed by all of the shelter representatives in San Francisco, is that these animals need homes that are prepared for them.

"We need a constant supply of new foster homes, because we have a constant supply of new Chihuahuas," she said, calling for a halt to "irresponsible" backyard breeding.

In January, Santa Barbara County will begin an effort aimed in part at such breeders. That's when a new ordinance will go into effect requiring owners of unaltered dogs to get a special license.

Fourteen months ago, the county staged Adopt-a-Chihuahua Week to find homes for more than 100 of the abandoned breed that had ended up in its three animal shelters.

Each dog came with its own pink carrying case, trimmed in black fake fur.

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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