TOKUSHIMA, Japan (Reuters Life!) - It's a dog's life for a stray mutt in any country, but in Japan a canine that ends up in the municipal pound is far more likely to be put down than to find a new home.
While in some other industrialized countries the idea of "saving" a pet from a shelter is well-established, in Japan animal welfare activists say strays often fall foul of an attitude that prizes puppies and pedigrees as status symbols.
"In Britain, the public go to animal welfare shelters to adopt an animal and save a life. The mindset in Japan is still 'if you want a pet, go to a pet shop'," said Briar Simpson, a New Zealander who works for Japan's animal shelter ARK, via e-mail.
In Britain, approximately 6 to 9 percent of dogs in pounds are put to death every year, 2007-2009 figures show, according to the website of Dogs Trust, the nation's largest dog welfare charity.
In Japan that figure is more than 70 percent, the Japanese animal welfare organization ALIVE says.
In rural areas such as Tokushima Prefecture, on the southwestern island of Shikoku, the situation is even worse. In 2008 alone, more than 88 percent of abandoned dogs at the Tokushima Animal Welfare Center were put down.
Most strays have been abandoned by their owners, while others are the offspring of abandoned dogs that have gone wild. Some hunting dogs are dumped in the off-season rather than kept for the following year's season, activists say.
But whatever their former lives, once at the center the dogs are kept for a maximum of only seven days.
Kensuke Kuramoto, a dog trainer exercising his Dobermann in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, said too many people treat dogs like toys and trinkets.
"First of all, too many people are raising dogs in Japan, and people tend to view their lives too lightly," he said.
"As there are people who treat dogs as part of their family, there are also those who buy them for simple reasons like celebrating a daughters birthday."
Attitudes are changing slowly due to media coverage in recent years, especially in the cities where the pet boom is at its height. More people are adopting strays.
"I have these two dogs because someone threw them away, but as dogs are living creatures, it's similar to murder if you throw them away," said Mika Takahashi, a 21-year-old resident of Tokyo as she walked her two pets -- one a pedigree Italian greyhound and the other dark-grey husky mongrel.
However, taking in an abandoned dog is still not very common in Japan despite the burgeoning dog population. At more than 6.8 million in 2008, there are already more canines in the nation than children under the age of six.
And more than 118,000 dogs a year Japan still end up in the dog pound, according to the latest 2008 statistics. Out of these only a handful will be found new homes.
At the Tokushima Animal Welfare Center alone, more than 2,700 dogs were put to death in the year to March 2009.
When the center was built, officials promised locals they would not kill any dogs on site, so they are asphyxiated with carbon dioxide gas in metal containers euphemistically called "dream boxes" aboard a truck between the center and the local crematorium.
However painless the operation is, the process is still emotionally painful for those that have to see it daily.
"Whenever I press the button to inject the gas, I feel totally powerless," said the centre's chief veterinarian, Akinori Kume, his eyes filled with tears.
Editing by Alex Richardson