'Advice to Animal Owners'
Updated: May 31
It is 1939. You know that war is imminent. You have had your gas mask since last year. You are scared. Life as you have known it is about to change in unimaginable ways. Soon, about three million people will be evacuated from cities and towns in an effort to reduce the number of civilian casualties and deaths. We will separate children from mothers who are already distraught, but resigned, that their husbands and sons are going, who knows where to fight and that they may not return.
The Ministry of Food will issue ration books to ensure fair distribution of food which will be in short supply, critically so. You will be encouraged to grow vegetables and breed rabbits in your garden for food. There will be no food ration for cats and dogs.
You will be expected to hang blackout curtains and blinds at your windows. No chinks of light emanating out into the night sky will be allowed, the air raid warden will make sure of that.
A pamphlet comes through your letterbox from the newly formed National Air Raid Precautions Animals Committee (NARPAC) with the heading Advice to Animal Owners. It is advising you to
‘if at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country before an emergency
It ends with the following:
‘if you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed’
The same advice is being printed in most newspapers and is being broadcast by the BBC on the radio.
“It was one more thing people had to do: evacuate the children, put up the blackout curtains, kill the cat”
Historian, Hilda Kean
After the outbreak of war, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in London received many requests for much-loved pets to be euthanized because men and women were serving their country, had been bombed, or simply because they could not find or afford food for their pets.
The Peoples Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) was also inundated by pet owners asking for beloved pet dogs and cats to be destroyed.
The newspapers which had printed the advice from NARPAC, now printed sad notices such as
“A short but happy life-2 years, 12 weeks. Forgive us little pal” Tail-Wagger Magazine.
“Happy memories of Lola, sweet faithful friend, given sleep September 4th, 1939, to be saved from suffering during the war”
However, not everyone felt euthanizing pets was necessary, Susan Day wrote in the Daily Mirror
“Putting your pets to sleep is a very tragic decision. Do not take it before it is absolutely necessary”
Battersea’s manager at that time, Edward Healy-Tutt asked people “not to be too hasty”
The cat-loving Duchess of Hamilton swiftly traveled from Scotland to the BBC in London to broadcast to the people of Britain, informing them that,
. "Homes in the country are urgently required for those dogs and cats, which must otherwise be left behind to starve to death or be shot."
The Duchess also opened an animal sanctuary and rescued hundreds of pets from London’s ransacked East End.
In just one week after the war started, heeding the advice from NARPAC, the traumatised British public took as many as 750,000 pets to the PDSA and other establishments to be ‘put to sleep’
Compared to the human suffering during the war, this may not seem to be noteworthy, but it was yet another heart-breaking decision to be made, and cruel hardship to be endured by the people in Britain, which we should not forget. Nor should we forget the pets who willingly went with their owners to their fate.
Jacqueline Heron Wray, June 2019
Campbell, Clare, Campbell Christy, Bonzo’s War Animals Under Fire 1939-1945, Constable, 2013.