The World War II Booklet That Doomed Britain’s Pets

Several weeks ago we were paging through a wartime edition of a British pet magazine called, The Tail-Wagger. What caught our attention was a notice that read, “Happy memories of Iola, sweet faithful friend, given sleep September 4th 1939, to be saved suffering during the war. A short but happy life – 2 years, 12 weeks. Forgive us little pal.”

It seemed to sad. Why would a “sweet faithful friend” be “given sleep” to spare it from suffering during the war? Most of the questions were answered in another booklet we found in the lot called, AIR RAID PRECAUTIONS HANDBOOK NO.12 (1st Edition). AIR RAID PRECAUTIONS FOR ANIMALS.

Designed for pet owners, the publication featured a helpful ad for a pistol -- "the standard instrument for the humane destruction of domestic animals."

Designed for pet owners, the publication featured a helpful ad for a pistol — “the standard instrument for the humane destruction of domestic animals.”

The threat of war came upon Great Britain in the 1930s like the boiling black clouds of a violent summer thunderstorm. By the middle of the decade, Germany’s secret program of rearmament was already well underway – a program that soon became obvious when, in 1938, troops of the Third Reich occupied Austria. Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and the announcement of a pact with the Soviet Union the next year did little to calm nerves. War was not just likely — it was inevitable and London was incited into what one historian call “a frenzy of worry.”

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Plans were made to evacuate patients from hospitals and parks were turned over to civilians who used them to grow extra food for the war effort. Gas masks were distributed, trenches were dug and booklets circulated on what to do in the event of an air raid.

An Underground Station During the Blitz

An Underground Station during the Blitz

One of those publications was produced by the Home Office for pet owners. Though it has only 28 pages and measures just 6 ½ x 5 inches, the booklet is said to have sent over 750,000 British animals to their deaths.

What set off the furious slaughter of these once-treasured animals was the advice it contained: “If at all possible, send or take your household animals into the country in advance of an emergency.” It continued, “If you cannot place them in the care of neighbours, it really is kindest to have them destroyed.” Pets, it said firmly, would not be allowed in public air-raid shelters.

Included in the booklet was a do-it-yourself guide for putting animals down and an advertisement for a handgun to be used for “the humane destruction of domestic animals.”

The result was panic. An East London veterinarian is quoted as saying that when “the sirens sounded . . . almost immediately West Ham Town Hall became besieged by panic-stricken people bringing their animals for destruction.”

“[As] families hastily covered up their windows with black-out curtains,” recounts Clare Campbell, “countless cats and dogs were shooed out into the street, or tied up in sacks to be thrown in canals or dumped in back streets and alleyways.” The Daily Mail reported that “Five days of mass destruction followed. . . A local rendering firm was stacked several feet deep with dog and cat carcasses.”

“Municipal parties set out on slaughtering campaigns using a mixture of electric shocks, cyanide and chloroform — 100 animals at a time was not unusual. There were so many animals that mass culling was the only option.” — The Daily Mail

The Battersea Dogs ad Cats Home, 1939.

The Battersea Dogs ad Cats Home, 1939.

Places like the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home were besieged with people asking them to put their pets down because they were “going off to war, they were bombed, or they could no longer afford to keep them during rationing,” a company spokesman is quoted as saying. “Battersea actually advised against taking such drastic measures and our then-manager Edward Healey-Tutt wrote to people asking them not to be too hasty.”

“People were basically told to kill their pets and they did. They killed 750,000 of them in the space of a week,” says Christy Campbell, who helped write Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939 – 1945.

“It was one of things people had to do when the news came,” says historian Hilda Kean, “it was just another way of signifying that war had begun — evacuate the children, put up the blackout curtains, kill the cat.”

Though the slaughter did slow in subsequent weeks, in all three-quarters of a million animals are said to have died, making the pets of England one of the earliest victims of World War II.

Joe Miller,

The Air Raid Precautions Handbook No. 12. Air Raid Precautions for Animals, was published by the British Home Office in 1939. Special thanks to the BBC and the Daily Mail for information and quotes that helped provide the background to our booklet. The illustration of pages 26 and 27 of the manual comes from You can learn more about the slaughter of pets during Word War II in the book, Bonzo’s War: Animals Under Fire 1939 – 1945, by Clare Campbell with Christy Campbell.

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3 thoughts on “The World War II Booklet That Doomed Britain’s Pets

  1. Mustang.Koji

    An incredible story showcasing until now the hidden horrors – and trauma – associated with war. Not just the battlefield but even on the home front. Thank you posting this.

  2. hilarycustancegreen

    I first became aware of this when it featured in a period film (sorry can’t remember the name) on TV. I didn’t realise that so comprehensive. So many people must have been sad before the war even started.

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