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.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Stemming the flood of animals

This past week I was at one of the largest shelters in the United States. At one point, I was standing by a door chatting with some of my co-workers for ten minutes, and during those ten minutes we saw three sets of people coming in to surrender their dogs. This shelter takes in about 100 animals a day, 30,000 animals a year.

My co-workers and I realized that the biggest problem this shelter faced was its massive intake. Nothing else they could do to solve their problems would be more effective than reducing that. In fact, it has been shown again and again that euthanasia in shelters mirrors intake: more intake means more euthanasia, and less intake means less euthanasia. But how do you reduce intake?

When I was catching up on my life this morning with my husband, I told him about managed intake: the shelter only accepts owner-surrendered animals that they have room for. If they don’t have space, they don’t accept the animal. The animal may be put on a waiting list, and ideally the shelter offers support during the wait (food if the owner can’t afford to feed the animal, behavioral advice, help finding animal-friendly housing).

In the case of animals that the shelter knows that they will have great difficulty placing (old, sick, etc.), they will let the owner know that they will immediately euthanize the animal. This sounds cold, but the alternative that many shelters practice is to take the animal in and euthanize it without warning the owner that this is inevitable. (No one likes conflict, least of all institutions run by local government.) This approach shifts the responsibility onto the owner. Although many people who surrender animals to shelters know that the animal may be killed, it is much easier to convince yourself that that could never happen to your animal (which you know is so wonderful) if there is some chance that the animal will survive. This puts the choice of euthanasia onto the shelter, and the blame onto the shelter. But moving the decision back to the owner means that the owner has to deal with the decision, and hopefully find another solution, or at least take the experience into account the next time they acquire an animal or have difficulties with a pet. (Is the experience of surrendering a pet to an unknown fate more difficult than the experience of having a healthy pet euthanized? I have my own guess, and you can make yours.)

My husband (kindly playing the foil in the Socratic dialogues of this blog) asked me about the unintended consequences of such a policy. The shelter is mandated by the county to accept stray dogs. Will the policy result in more people untruthfully representing their surrendered pets as strays? Will it even result in more animals being abandoned on the street?

We don’t know; the research hasn’t been done. Some shelters have experimented with managed intake, and their experience has been that this policy does not actually cause very many people to do reprehensible things. Mostly, people will put their animals on the waiting list (perhaps with some yelling at the shelter employees first), and then some of them will surrender the animal when room is available, and some will find other options (like a friend who wants a dog), and some will decide to keep the animal after all. And some will be lost to follow up, so perhaps those people do put the animal on the street.

But here is what I think about it: abandoning an animal on the street is illegal. So if a shelter institutes managed intake, and as a result some people break the law, whose fault is that? Is it the shelter’s fault? In my book, the shelter is behaving very responsibly by refusing to accept animals that they cannot care for, and by being honest that a new animal which is accepted must be euthanized. Some support for owners who need it is essential, and should be considered a part of managed intake. If an owner responds to this policy by breaking the law, I feel that the blame is with them. Perhaps increased enforcement of animal cruelty laws (which include neglect) is the proper answer to this problem.

More and more shelters are considering managed intake. I think there will be anger in some communities at first, but I am very hopeful that if enough shelters institute this policy, there will eventually be a sea change in our culture’s approach to unwanted animals. Whose problem is an unwanted animal? The owner's.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Social epidemiology recommendation

I am totally digging the first week of Social Epidemiology, a course on Coursera. (Quick summary of Coursera: free classes; you don’t have to commit, can just watch the lectures if that’s all you want; entirely online and open.) Epidemiology is of course the study of disease at a population level, and most people think of classic epidemiology cases like Ebola virus (who got it first? how is it transmitted in the population? who’s most at risk? how do we stop its spread?). But social epidemiology is about the social factors in disease — most commonly chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. What social factors cause people to live unhealthy lives?

This is obviously applicable to veterinary preventive medicine (though not directly addressed in the class; it takes some extrapolation). Why don’t people vaccinate their animals? Why don’t they exercise their animals? My personal interest is in how to prevent these sorts of problems, so I’m very much hoping that later in the class it will address preventive medicine and policy (how do we help people live healthier lives?). But if I wait until that happens to recommend it, it will be too late! Take it now! No committment! You can just listen to the lectures (or just do the readings). Only take the quizzes if you want to (though the first one wasn’t difficult). Just learn!

Hopefully a few years from now I will be offering the world’s first Social Veterinary Epidemiology class online. A girl can hope.