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The health ministry has ordered local governments nationwide to try to find new owners for dogs caught by public health workers instead of euthanizing them, ministry officials said Wednesday.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry rarely issues directives on animal protection, but it has been coming under fire from animal rights activists and lawmakers upset by the strict rabies law, ministry officials said.

The rabies law stipulates that captured dogs can be “disposed of” if their owners do not turn up within just two days. Public health workers thus end up destroying most of the dogs they capture, using gas or injections.

In fiscal 2005, 88,827 dogs were caught but only 14,410 were identified.

The ministry pointed out that public awareness of animal protection is much stronger than in 1950, when the law was enacted, and called on the public to increase its respect for life and keep as many dogs alive as possible.

An official of the ministry’s Tuberculosis and Infectious Disease Control Division said the ministry is hoping local public health centers will find ways to keep the dogs.

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