UK September 1939: Brits Kill 750,000 Companion Animals

An estimated 750,000 largely healthy pets were deliberately killed by the British during September 1939 which was the month during which Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany.

Nearly all of these companion animals were cats and dogs. A reporter at the time stated that there were 7m cats in Britain. One minute you love your cat or dog. The next, shortly after the declaration of war and notification that air-raid shelters would not accept pets, you are drowning your cat in a bag in a canal or following government instructions on how to kill your dog with a bolt gun. This tells us how brutal and panicky life became at the outbreak of the Second World War for Brits.

The government of the time actively promoted this pet massacre. It seems that cat and dog owners were indoctrinated into believing that it would be the humane thing to do to kill your cat or dog under the extreme circumstances of a full-blown war.

One fear was that cats and dogs would panic at the sound of air-raid sirens, run into the street and become contaminated with mustard gas.

When the air-raid sirens first sounded in West Ham, East London, it was the humans who panicked. They raced to the town hall to have their cherished companion animals destroyed. People abandoned their pets. Many wandered into the street to be chased down and killed. Mass slaughter took place in the town hall for five days.

London was bombed in 1940 and that prompted more cat and dog abandonments. London streets blitzed by bombs were homes from abandoned domestic cats. Feral cat and dog colonies developed. One was on Clapham Common, South London.

Local authorities organised various means of mass slaughter of stray companion animals such as cyanide, electric shocks and chloroform. It was Pet Armageddon in London Town.

Some people had their own shelters and some dogs behaved perfectly well under the circumstances. The same for cats. Some people would stay in their homes with their companion animal and survived. I expect that the most pressing dangers from bombing was in the major cities, London being the prime target.

I am sure some people simply moved to the country with their cat or dog. One gentleman stayed at home with the cats and dogs while his wife and children went to the shelter during air raids. He said he would be worried about his animals if he left them at home.

As the war progressed it appears that some sanity returned and various means were devised to save the lives of pets but food rationing resulted in the Ministry Of Food suggesting that the dog population should be reduced.

Anti-cat and anti-dog campaigns were started by government. They were eating too much and some of it was fit for human consumption. They were the enemy of survival.

It was a startlingly tough time for everyone but the cat and dog were extremely vulnerable. It was a time of life and death for all and for more than three-quarters of a million companion animals the first days of the war meant death.

Source: Bonzo’s War: Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939-1945 via the Daily Mail.

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UK September 1939: Brits Kill 750,000 Companion Animals — 16 Comments

  1. Our late mother was 21 years old in 1939 and living in a small village in Essex and she once told us about the many people panicking and queuing up to have their pets PTS. She was a great cat lover and it upset her very much and she never forgot the horror of it all her life.
    Her own pet cat Mrs Moss stayed with her and her dad and took her chance with them and they all survived the war.

    • There we are. Your mother made a decision to keep her cat and it worked out. Once again, it makes me think that a genuine cat caretaker and cat lover will be likely to find a way to keep his/her cat and not follow the crowd nor listen to government making pronouncements.

      It is the same attitude today with respect to responsible cat caretaking. Some care and some don’t so much.

  2. To genuine cat lovers/caretakers, their cat is part of the family and like our late mother Barbara nor I would ever part with our cats under any circumstances.

    • Nor me – gosh this is a total nightmare I knew nothing about. I’d be in a total panic. It would mean basically locking them inside until finding a way of smuggling them out and with a place to go in the countryside until the war was over. I hope I don’t ever dream about this. Nobody could ever convince me to kill a healthy animal if there was a 1% chance it could continue living dying from mustard gas or bombs.

      • You would stand by your cat. I know you would. The best solution would have been to go to the country with your cat or dog and find a way to live there. Tough but possible I would hope.

  3. I understand the desperation at that time. But, as Ruth AKA says, nothing would make me part with my cats. I don’t know what a bolt gun is but, if people were being trained to use it to kill their animals, I think they should have turned it on on the officials instead.
    This is one situation where I believe I could turn violent.

    • I am the same. Or I hope that under the pressure of war I would be the same. If a real old fashioned war started nowadays, I know I would never go anywhere without my cat, Charlie. I just could not leave him never mind kill him. I’d rather die first or die with him. That sounds melodramatic but it is true.

  4. On the other hand there are some inspirational stories such as Faith the Church Cat. Several cats learnt to distinguish the sound of a distant V-1 from an aeroplane and went into a hiding place before the air raid warning sounded – an early warning system! Cats spontaneously mass evacuated Exeter the day before it was heavily bombed. If I saw cats doing that, I’d have trusted their superior senses and followed them.

    When my dad’s family were forced to evacuate their bombed out home, they took the cat with them. They were not going to leave the cat behind (my dad, being a kid at the time, said he’d never forgive Hitler for killing the family budgie).

    • There are probably thousands of wonderful stories that no one knows about where people stayed with their cat and even died with their cat in the blitz.

      I love that bit about your dad. The point is this: if you genuinely care for your cat, love your cat for the lifetime of your cat, you’ll find a way to stay with your cat and continue to love him/her, despite everything. I am probably setting too high a standard and I don’t know how scared I would have been in the blitz but I know I couldn’t leave my cat behind, ever. That may seem extreme to some people but not to me.

      Actually, I also love that bit about cats being an early warning system. I would definitely trust my cat. He is a highly trustworthy individual, far more so than most of the people I have met 😉

      • Cats, absolutely, have early warning signals.
        I see it all the time in feral colonies.
        And, when I wrote one time that when they run I run, I meant it. I trust them to know when it’s not safe.

        • I agree they have early warning system. Perhaps the more scientific approach is that cats have finely tuned senses and are excellent survivors (9 lives) so they can pick up signs of danger ahead of humans sometimes.

  5. This is an awful and sad part of history, it must have been hideous to be around in the days when war was declared and everyone was frightened and panicky and it seems that the government then was just as manipulative as it is these days putting out propaganda and sitting back waiting for the result. I read about this on the BBC news page the other day and couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards, how many animals were betrayed by those that they should have been safest with, how many families were put in torment and set against each other by the head of the family insisting that the family pet be put to death, how many children cried themselves to sleep because their much loved cat or dog was taken from them on the say so of the government and their dad or their mam. I’ve read stories of families in the war not only evacuating the kids but also the dog and hopefully the cat into the countryside and I’ve read of people taking their pets into the shelters in the gardens. I worry about how cats coped, if they panicked and ran, the noise of planes overhead and bombs dropping must have terrified them as much as it did the human members of the families. Like Ruth said she or I would never, not for any reason, part with our cats, I’d much rather tough it out and take my chances and at least have a shot at staying together than take their lives from them.

  6. I am sure that many people realised too late that they had been panicked into acting prematurely. This mass slaughter was something that should have been put on hold until the situation became clear. Things are often not as bad as imagined and ways can be found to get by without recourse to irreversible drastic action. I bet a lot of those people regretted the day they killed their pets as they threw away unwanted food. I was a toddler in 1939 and we kept all our cats and nobody went hungry. Anyway cats are quite capable of finding some dinner on their own.

    • I completely agree. It was a panic because it was war and common sense was suspended until, as you say, people got used to the new order of things. It is just human nature but it does reflect poorly on people in respect of their relationship with companion animals.

  7. I too never knew any of this, not even from my aunties who always told me stories of their lives during the war.

    I would move heaven and earth to keep my cats with me or at least find them a place of safety.

    It would be interesting to know more about the impact that the extermination of cats and dogs had on the rodent population in those early days.

    • Good point about rodents, Leah. As I recall, later on in the war when there was less panic, cats were retained to kill rodents and they were rewarded with powdered milk! The wrong thing but in those days people did not realise that you can’t give cats cow’s milk. It was estimated that 40 million gallons of milk was consumed by cats before the war and it milk was banned for cats during the war. I bet they were healthier for it 😉

      The authorities realised that cats serve a very useful purpose in keeping down rodent populations. Once again it is a reminder that feral cats in the USA do the same but it appears that only a few people realise it.

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