Caring for strays is easy. . finding new homes is hard part

LAUREL has big soft chocolate brown eyes, a short wiry coat and a stubby tail that wags incessantly.

• David Ewing with one of his feline charges

She presses her wet nose against the bars of her cage and lets out a tiny whimper before wandering across the tiled floor of her 'home' to settle down in a pile of warm blankets, a handful of puppy toys by her side.

A few weeks ago all her Christmases came at once, when she left the confines of her cage at the Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home to start a new life with loving owners.

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For a brief spell, Laurel the friendly little coffee and cream coloured mongrel was someone's best friend, with a lap to settle on when she needed that little spot under her chin scratched and a fireplace to sit in front of when she was chilly. Now, however, the 13-week-old pup is back.

"They changed their mind," says Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home owner David Ewing, with a tinge of disappointment in his voice. "Someone decided to give her a home, but then they brought her back again when they realised that giving a puppy a home requires a certain amount of patience and effort. It's a shame. When we home an animal we hope we don't see them again - that it's 'job done'.

"Then again, we'd rather she came back to us than ended up just being kicked out."

David has scores of sad tales about the thousands upon thousands of animals he's helped re-home in 37 years working at the centre and a lifetime of being involved with it. Such as the pets that arrive dreadfully sick, coats matted and infested with blood-sucking ticks and fleas, skin scabby and raw, undernourished animals, sometimes abused, uncared for and unloved.

With help from a team of dedicated staff and expert support from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, David patches them up and makes them healthy again.

Increasingly, though, that's the easy bit. A much tougher challenge is to find them a home.

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Today, the Dog and Cat Home is thriving. There's rarely been so many stray dogs looking for a home at this point in December, with each kennel block containing 24 cages with animals just like Lauren, practically full. Barely a day passes without more new arrivals - around 35 stray pets take up board and lodgings at the Seafield Road kennels every week.

Sadly business isn't quite so brisk in the other direction.

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"We have around 140 dogs at the moment looking for homes or strays waiting to be claimed. What we're short of is people looking to take them," sighs David. "Recently we've been managing to home only one dog a week, so we are getting to the stage of being pretty full.

"I can only put it down to the recession and people deciding they can't really afford to keep their pet."

The yelps and gruff barks of dozens of dogs drown him out as he walks through one of the kennel blocks. Behind the cage doors are cute Yorkshire terriers, friendly collies, and dozens of Staffordshire terriers.

There are bright-eyed lurchers and wrinkly shar-peis, scruffy, lovable mongrels and big Rottweiler types which have booming barks which, insists David, mask a playful nature.

Inside the cattery, there are around 20 bundles of fur curled up on woolly blankets: Marley, a long-haired tortoiseshell glamour puss stray, raises a sleepy eye before languorously stretching and wandering over to rub against the cage, purring gently.

None of the dogs or cats at the home have an owner, but life could be much worse on the street: at least here the cages have underfloor heating, there's warm bedding and toys to keep them company, the home staff ensure they are exercised regularly - the dogs' exercise yard has a purpose built agility section with jumps and ramps to clamber over - there's ample food, health care and no shortage of canine or feline company.

Still, though, not exactly 'home'.

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"There can be all kinds of reasons why a pet comes here," David continues, watching with a grin as black lurcher cross Lola leaps in the air over and over again with uncontained excitement as he approaches her cage.

"There can be very genuine reasons - maybe they're moving to a smaller house, or the owner has died, perhaps there's just a change of circumstances which means they can't afford to keep their pet and the last thing they'd want to do is turn them out as a stray.

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"Then dogs come to us having been picked up by the dog warden or the police or the public. We keep them for seven days and hope their owner comes to claim them. If they don't, we see if we can find them a home.

"We do everything we can - we get them healthy, we make sure they're vaccinated, we spay or neuter them, microchip them. We spend at least 3500 a month on vets' bills. We even do dental work on them, in fact, we spend a fortune on their teeth!"

It's a labour of love for David, who grew up with the strays of the Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home.

"My mum and dad worked here. Mum ran the cattery and dad was the van driver - although he preferred to be known as the 'transport manager'," he grins.

"I came here to work and met my wife Valerie here. I always say other people come here to get a dog or a cat, I got a wife.

"Now my son, Chris, works here part-time as well. It's in the genes," he laughs.

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But the history of the home dates back much further - an indication, perhaps, that even in these modern times we still haven't learned how to keep on top of our pet population.

"It was Chambers, the dictionary people, who started it," explains David. "It was way back in the 1800s, and they decided something needed to be done about the stray dogs in Edinburgh.

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"They set up the Edinburgh Home for Lost and Starving Stray Dogs at Comely Bank, around where the Flora Stevenson Primary School is now. In 1900 they moved to Broughton and then came here, to Seafield Road, in 1957."

The area where the home now stands was once used for more pleasurable activities.

"This used to be a boating pond," explains David. "People would go from the dancing at Marine Gardens at Portobello to here where they could hire a rowing boat and potter around on the pond.

"This is the oldest animal charity in Edinburgh," he adds, "which is a bit sad really, because the problem the people who started it saw in the 1800s is still here now.

"Back then distemper - unheard of today - was rife, animals would be dying from awful diseases and there wasn't the same vet care as now. It wouldn't have been a very pleasant environment at all."

Today health issues can usually be fixed, so that even pets with long term illnesses like heart trouble and diabetes are given a chance to find new owners . . . assuming anyone wants them.

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"Care has come on leaps and bounds," nods Davids. "But the old problems remain and dogs and cats still end up coming here. It's a struggle right now and we have a policy of not turning animals away - after all, what would happen to them if we did? The last thing we'd want to do is to shut our doors and say 'sorry, no room at the inn'."

• For further details about the Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home, at Seafield Road East, go to or call 0131-669 5331.

All varieties catered for

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THE Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home has room for around 150 dogs and cats seeking new homes and also runs a boarding kennels and cattery.

As well as dogs and cats, the home has also been known to provide care for a variety of other unwanted, abandoned or stray animals.

In the past staff have rehomed a pig, a goat, several ferrets, rabbits, stoats and various birds.

At one point staff tended to a seal found washed up on the shore and have nursed back to health ducks and even a chicken.

The home is a registered charity which raises money through its boarding kennel business, donations and bequests.

Many of the kennels have plaques displayed which are dedicated to the memory of animal lovers.

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The home asks anyone adopting a dog or cat for a donation to help with costs.