Despite howls of protest from dog lovers, the Virginia House of Delegates today approved a controversial measure allowing landowners to shoot wild dogs and cats that roam onto their property.

The 61-to-36 vote delighted farmers and some conservationists who asked for the bill to help protect cattle, sheep, and other livestock from marauding packs of wild, and potentially rabid, dogs.

Opponents, though, vowed an all-out fight in the Senate, charging the bill would sanction wholesale murder of innocent pets.

"It's a disgusting piece of legislation to come out of the House of Delegates," said Walt G. Lane, president of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies. "It's going to mean open license to shoot any dog or cat."

Del. David G. Brickley (D-Prince William), the bill's chief sponsor, said the bill was needed because, under current Virginia law, "you can't shoot the dog until it actually attacks the sheep and cattle.

"What's happening now is the sheep are suffering from heart attacks," Brickley added. "The dogs go chasing them all over the farm and then they drop dead. They're scared to death."

During last week's committee hearing on the bill, spokesmen for the Virginia Farm Bureau and other groups told of wild dogs attacking prize bulls and chasing deer through the forest. In addition, Brickley added, the bill is needed because of the rabies problem, which has reached nearly epidemic proportions in Prince William and other parts of Northern Virginia.

Brickley's bill is aimed at remedying the situation by striking existing language in the law that makes it illegal to kill "feral" (i.e. wild) dogs and cats.

Opponent Del. Jay W. DeBoer (D-Petersburg) said this definition probably would have matched his Irish setter, "Red," when he found him last May. Red then was an emaciated, dirty dog laden with flees, the legislator said. "He's now probably the most intelligent dog we've ever had . . . . Red probably would have been shot if this bill had passed."