Sunday, June 9, 2013

Is the flood of animals receding?

I got a great question from Christopher of Border Wars on my last post. He wrote: “From the data I’ve seen, shelter intakes are dropping in real numbers and have been for decades despite constant growth in both population and animal ownership. So aren't the flood waters already going out?” I answered there, but have been feeling that there’s more to say on the topic.

As I wrote back to Christopher, the numbers of animals surrendered to shelters and the numbers of stray animals are definitely dropping in most (but not all) communities. Does this mean our work is done? Below you will find rampant over-generalization! Enjoy.

Location, location, location
Things are pretty good in the northeastern United States. When I started this blog, I lived in New England. Shelters there certainly had their problems, but they weren’t nearly as overwhelmed as the shelters that I have seen this year in the South. Northeastern shelters often import dogs (particularly puppies) from Southern shelters. So when you’re looking at intake numbers, think about what part of the country you’re in. The problems in the South are still intense, as I can attest from first-hand experience this year.

Dogs vs cats
When I was in New England, I observed that many shelters were managing their dog populations very well. Dogs in most shelters had a very high adoption rate there; healthy, behaviorally stable dogs in New England shelters had little to fear. Cats were an entirely different story. Plenty of shelters were euthanizing cats for space, and the others were stuck holding cats for months before finding homes for them.

Ironically, the tide is turning with the new programs in which cats who have been successfully following a healthy free-roaming lifestyle are simply sterilized, vaccinated, and returned to the neighborhood in which they were living. This has dropped cat euthanasia rates dramatically in participating communities. (See my previous post on leaving outdoor cats where they are.) You can’t really do this with dogs, so suddenly some shelters are finding themselves euthanizing more dogs than cats!

A dog problem or a pit bull problem?
I have been told that New England doesn’t have an unwanted dog problem, but it does have an unwanted pit bull problem. By that, of course, I mean pit bull type dogs, as the “pit bull” designation does not refer to a specific breed and is often used loosely to describe mixed-breed dogs who have a certain look.

For sure, in almost any shelter you go to, you’ll see many more pit bull types than dogs of any other breed. (The exception is shelters in communities with breed specific bans, in which those types of dogs may not be allowed in the shelters, or are immediately shipped out or euthanized.) This type of dog is harder to adopt out of shelters, as many adopters are looking for a different type of pet. They also do poorly in shelters, because they are highly social, smart, and energetic. Many shelters are specifically struggling with how to stem the flood of pit bull type dogs; the various programs that have been tried are a topic for a different post.

Some improvement is not enough

And finally, as I said to Christopher in my answer to his comment, we may have seen some improvement, but it is nowhere near enough. Appalling numbers of animals were euthanized in shelters in the past. Somewhat less appalling animals are euthanized now. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that the numbers have dropped from 12-20 million shelter euthanasias per year in the 1970s to 2.7 million shelter euthanasias today. It’s all guesswork, because there is no centralized reporting for animal shelters; we don’t even know how many shelters are in the U.S., let alone how many animals they process and how many animals survive. Remember, though, that those numbers don’t include animals trapped in inhumane conditions in long-term facilities, sometimes for years (again, this is from personal experience). It does not account for overcrowding at shelters causing welfare problems, even short-term, for the animals who stay there. Nor does it account for animals dying of disease in shelters which do not have the resources to manage their populations. And it probably accounts for spectacular changes in some shelters, but much less change in others.

The trend is in a good direction, but we’re not done, and the trend won’t continue in this direction without more work. So get your animals spayed or neutered, don’t buy animals from pet stores or flea markets or online, take your dog to a training class to prevent behavior problems, exercise your dog for the same reason, and volunteer at your local shelter.


  1. There was a great article a couple years ago in JAVMA titled Epidemiology of Surgical Castration in the United States. I found it both interesting and obvious how the geographical distribution so closely correlated with the busiest shelters. These programs work.
    I wrote a post about it here:

    You can find the citation if you want to check it out, though you've already probably seen it as it's right up your alley.

  2. Huh -- I don't think I have seen it! But I will definitely look it up. Thanks.