Jane Kirby investigates why Sussex has the unenviable distinction of having the joint highest rate for abandoning animals.

SIMBA is a boisterous, happy puppy looking for a new home.

The German shepherd was brought to the Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare near Lewes two weeks ago because his owners felt they could no longer care for him.

He is just one of about 1,500 animals left at the centre in the past year, many of them abandoned in the run-up to Christmas and New Year.

Some animals arrive at the centre because their owners die, others are strays that have been dropped off by kind passers-by.

But some of the reasons why animals are left are not so genuine.

Raystede publicity and education officer Ann Randall said: "Saddest of all is the 'swap shop' syndrome, whereby an owner will bring a pet here because they have decided it isn't what they wanted after all.

"They have no conscience about suggesting that they could perhaps take another one from the centre which might be more the animal they are seeking."

At the Blue Cross Equine and Small Animal Adoption Centre in Northiam, near Rye, staff are also busy dealing with new arrivals.

Following a study of 11 centres nationwide, the charity discovered a 50 per cent increase in admissions over this time last year in Sussex and the West Midlands. Elsewhere in the country, the increase was 30 per cent.

Manager Liz Grant said: "We were already full before Christmas and the waiting list has got longer. The centre has about 45 cats, 11 dogs and 30 horses.

"The time just before Christmas is always very busy and each year we get busier. People can't cope and it's a stressful time for everyone. With the extra stress of a pet, people think they can't deal with the dog or cat any longer."

Jan Meredith lives in Brighton and is a volunteer animal worker for Sussex Pet Rescue. She works alongside nine other volunteers who foster abandoned pets until permanent homes can be found.

Staff at Pet Rescue collected eight dogs in the run-up to Christmas, taking the total to 18, and have four more on the waiting list.

The number is already higher than last year and Ms Meredith expected the figure to rise further in the next two weeks.

She said: "The number increases every year but this was a particularly bad year. People get rid of dogs to replace them with a new puppy at Christmas, or they do not want to pay kennel fees if they are going away.

"People abandon puppies when they start chewing. People still don't realise what they are taking on and that owning an animal is a real responsibility."

At the National Canine Defence League in Shoreham, brothers John, Ringo, Paul and George were picked up by Brighton dog wardens just before Christmas. John has found a home but the other three are awaiting new owners.

Assistant manager Fiona Macdonald said: "They were found together and were much smaller than they are now. They were very shy but they've been out for walks and are much more confident, which is great."

Between 90 and 100 dogs were left at the shelter in November and December.

Ms Macdonald said: "During the holiday or when people get back from holidays is not a good time.

"But people do come and offer to take animals. On the first day we were open after Christmas, we had hundreds of people coming in and we have been really busy."

The RSPCA Animal Centre in Braypool Lane, Patcham, is home to about 30 dogs, 50 cats and 60 small animals.

More animals have been abandoned at the centre in the last few weeks than at any other time in the last 12 months and there is a waiting list.

Manager Jenny Wells said: "We have had kittens and rabbits dumped before Christmas and animals are coming in all the time.

"Christmas and New Year is a stressful time for a lot of people and they let their animals go. It could be a case of out with the old and in with the new.

"Generally, we seem to be getting more and more abandoned animals. People don't think before they take on animals.

"Perhaps they are not getting them neutered and the problem escalates for them.

"We desperately need people to come in and adopt. We are expecting lots of animals at the end of January."

Among unwanted pets the RSPCA is trying to re-home are a 14-month-old puppy called Bronte, who arrived just before Christmas, and three-year-old Becky, a stray cat who has undergone extensive surgery to her ears.

Ms Wells said: "It's too easy for people to get hold of animals and they don't realise the responsibility involved. If people go to a rehoming centre to look for an animal, they get more information and realise what they are taking on."

Anyone wishing to adopt an unwanted animal can call the RSPCA on 01273 554218 or the National Canine Defence League on 01273 452576. Sussex Pet Rescue can be contacted on 01273 551815 or 01273 389225 and the Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare on 01825 840252. The number for the Blue Cross is 01797 252243.