A shadowy group of "dog hunters" that communicates via the Internet is waging war on packs of feral dogs in Russia's cities, killing the dogs with poison and airgun bullets.

But dog owners and animal rights activists are up in arms, saying the campaign is cruel and ineffective and that beloved pets are dying after accidentally eating the poisoned bait.

The semi-clandestine Doghunters network has grown steadily and spread from Moscow to other large cities including Novosibirsk in Siberia and Yekaterinburg in the Urals.

The group's members say they want to solve the problem of stray dogs, both abandoned pets and their offspring born on the streets, which have bred vigorously and often attack passers-by.

The members post graphic photos of slain dogs on specialised Internet forums where they also exchange tips on the best poisons and how to kill a dog with an airgun.

In the Moscow region, some 1,300 dogs have been killed -- most of them poisoned -- by the group members in the last three years, according to animal rights activists.

In a manifesto published on a website called Vredy.org, or Nuisances, Doghunters say their goal is to "fight against the parasitic fauna that stops humans from living safely and comfortably".

"We are fighting wild dogs. We do not exterminate pet dogs," Doghunters say on their website, titled "No to vermin!"

But pet owners complain their dogs are also falling victims to the poisoned baits.

Some 500 dog owners rallied last month after dozens of dogs were poisoned over the course of a few weeks while being taken for walks in a Moscow park.

Threatening signs put up in the park said that dogs must be muzzled and on leads and "if you do not respect these rules, your dogs will die too".

The signs were illustrated with photographs of children bitten by dogs.

The dog owners demanded that the Doghunters be put on trial, calling them "sadists" and "butchers" and threatening physical reprisals.

"If I ever see someone poisoning a dog, I will skin him -- even if I go to prison for it," popular actor Leonid Yarmolnik said during the protest.

The Soviet authorities routinely captured and killed stray dogs, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, the population ballooned, reaching 30,000 in Moscow alone by 1996.

Nearly 400 people died in Russia between 2000 and 2010 after being attacked by dogs and over 13,000 are bitten every year in Moscow.

"We do not want to become victims," activist Dogmeat said, adding that he joined Doghunters after several people he knew were attacked by dogs.

"There are packs of very aggressive stray dogs," animal trainer Yelena Orochko told AFP. "These are big and strong animals capable of surviving on the streets."

While the dogs have to survive harsh conditions and sub-zero temperatures, members of the public feed them and they also take food from easily accessible rubbish bins.

A programme for stray dogs launched in 2001 by Moscow city hall under which the dogs were sterilised and then let free proved ineffective.

Since 2008 the dogs have not been re-released after a 55-year-old jogger was attacked and killed by stray dogs.

The city has built shelters that can accommodate almost 15,000 animals, but that is still insufficient.

"We would prefer for the dogs to be captured and placed in shelters, where if no one claimed them, they would be put down," one "Doghunter" member from Siberia, who gave only his nickname of Dogmeat, told AFP.

He claimed that government efforts "had no effect" so far because the state funding allocated for tackling the problem "had apparently been embezzled".

But animal rights activists slam the Doghunters as sadistic animal abusers.

"The Doghunters are maniacs. They enjoy killing. Unfortunately, the police do not want to react," said Daria Khmelnitskaya, an activist with animal rights group Vita.

Killing or abusing an animal is a criminal offence punishable with up to two years in prison, but activists complain that the authorities fail to enforce this law.