Hard times in Zimbabwe push many into hound-breeding, alarming animal welfare officials

With their economy going to the dogs, some Zimbabweans are turning to man's best friend as a way to ease their hard times.

But animal welfare advocates say the boom in dog breeding — much of it illegal — is leading to more suffering for the poorly treated pets.

A dog in the home is seen as a security precaution amid growing worries about house break-ins. Meanwhile, in poor, crowded neighborhoods, many backyards now serve as breeding grounds.

"I buy one good bitch. Within a year I am counting dollars," said Thanks Masaro, one of the dog breeders.

Masaro said his biggest threat comes from animal welfare organizations, which say many illegal breeders don't get dogs vaccinated and also separate vulnerable puppies from their mothers when they are just a few weeks old. Even so, illegal breeders who get arrested pay a $20 fine and return to business, said Marylin Stodart, head of the Animal Friendly Foundation, a sanctuary for abandoned pets.

"After losing their jobs, people just start breeding to make money but the dogs end up starving or abandoned," Stodart said. "Imagine if the owner is struggling to feed himself, who comes first: the owner or the dog?"

The sanctuary is battling to care for many dogs, including Rottweilers and Jack Russell terriers.

Culturally, Zimbabweans have kept dogs as pets or for security and hunting.

"People now see the dollar sign whenever they see a dog," said Livison Chareka, an officer with a group called Veterinarians for Animal Welfare in Zimbabwe. His job of catching illegal breeders carries risks.

"It can be dangerous because you are messing with people's livelihoods. Sometimes these people fight back," he said.

Mel Hood, another welfare officer, said there is a lot of "puppy smuggling" from neighboring South Africa and people get duped into paying up to $600 each for dogs whose advertised breeds are "fakes."

Breeder Trynos Machola's home in Harare's Glen Norah suburb teems with dogs. Machola, who started breeding in 2013 after losing his job at a textile firm, pointed at a dog.

"That's a pit bull. I want $300 for it," he said.

Widow Elizabeth Mukuhwu sees her two puppies as her companions, not as a commodity. Strapping one on her back and holding another, she sometimes walks five kilometers (three miles) to get her dogs veterinary services at a clinic in Chishawasha, a village east of the capital Harare.

"My husband and my son are dead, so I am alone," she said. "Tina and Cheetah here keep me company."