Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Who to blame for shelter dog euthanasias?

So, you saw a sad advertisement on social media about shelter pets dying from "lack of homes". You got sad, then you got mad. Time to blame someone! Odds are good, whoever made the ad already has a target handpicked: Is it... breeders? "irresponsible" pet owners? Maybe the solution is to punish people more, to enact more laws, give the maker of the ad money?

It feels good to blame "the other" for bad things. It's human nature. But let's all take a breath and consider what's really going on. Since the odds are good that the ad you just saw fudged or outright lied about some statistics, let's start with...

Real Numbers* 

About 670,000 dogs are euthanized in US shelters per year. Of those, about 10% are euthanized for a good reason** (ie, the same reasons that a compassionate pet owner would). So, the number of deaths-from-lack-of-home is actually about 570k.

Good news: There are about 78 million pet dogs in the US, so 570k dogs represents less than 1% of the dog population as a whole. Overall, we as a society are doing pretty good by our dogs. Let's not lose sight of that.

More good news: this number has been dropping steadily and significantly for the last couple decades. Also, the numbers of dogs entering shelters has been declining, the percentage being adopted has been increasing, and the number of strays returned to owner has been increasing. Something to celebrate!

Even more good news: even though it's still a large, sad number, there are actually more than enough homes available for these dogs***. It is a complete myth that there is an "overpopulation" of dogs in this country. It might have been true in the 1960's or '70's, but now it is not. There are 17 million potential homes, and only 570,000 dogs killed for "lack of a home". The only real question is, how to get them into the hands of people who are looking for them?

Logically, since things are already improving every year, if we want to end unnecessary euthanasia. we should focus on the things that work, and keep doing them but even better. The solution to needless killing has nothing with dog breeders, and actually not even all that much to do with the people who relinquish their pets to a shelter. The problem, and the solution, lies mostly with with the decisions that shelters make.

Bottom line: well-functioning shelters have low euthanasia rates; poorly-functioning shelters have high euthanasia rates. All other factors are drops in the bucket compared to the importance of shelter policies and procedures.

What do "good" animal shelter policies look like? They have pet retention programs, they work actively to promote adoptions, actively work to reunite lost pets with their owners... etc.


What does a "bad" animal shelter look like? They don't do the things listed above. Here's some examples.

Some more examples contrasting good vs. bad policies, and how they affect euthanasia rates.

Here's a story of how a bad shelter became a good one.

You still mad about dogs being killed? Good! Use that anger to personally improve the kill rates in your local shelter. If it's already a good shelter, or is on the right track, you can volunteer or otherwise support them. If it's a bad shelter, you can help them get on the right track, or, if they're stubborn, you can speak out, protest, boycott, attend city council meetings... all that good stuff. Be an actor, not a keyboard warrior. And don't share memes without checking them out first.

Maybe you're already very active in the rescue community, and you're angry because it seems like, where ever you turn, you see irresponsible people dumping their pets at shelters. I'm here to remind you that what you see is never the full story, if you knew what people go through when they surrender pets, you wouldn't be so quick to judge, and, even if they are the worst people in the world, they represent a tiny, tiny fraction of dog life in the US. Don't let your anger blind you to the fact that things are getting better all the time, not the reverse. Don't use your anger to spread lies and fear monger. Don't lash out at potential allies like dog breeders. Look at the numbers above and take a moment to celebrate before turning back to the work.

*There is no national organization that tabulates these stats, they vary from state to state, and even from shelter to shelter. I'm using the best estimates available at this time.

**"Good reason" is extremely subjective, and is open for discussion, most knowledgeable people in the field agree that an appropriate "kill rate" for shelter population is somewhere between 1%-20%. I've taken a middle number here for math purposes.

***This is grossly oversimplified, because clearly not every dog will be right for every family, and the US is just too physically large to move dogs around easily, and we can talk about the issues with these numbers, BUT, the point is clear: you can't say that an "overpopulation" exists.


Pet Statistics for 2016 (ASPCA)

ASPCA Research Articles

An Exploration of the Re-Homing of Cats and Dogs in the U.S. (PDF)

Shelter Reform Toolkits

KC Dog Blog

Association of Shelter Veterinarians Shelter Guidelines (PDF)



Anonymous said...

In my opinion, we don't need to blame anyone. We just need to cooperate and think the welfare of our pets. And there no wrong or problem in pet euthanasia services as long our reason is acceptable and right. By the way thank you for sharing.

J Bate said...

"...if you knew what people go through when they surrender pets, you wouldn't be so quick to judge"--clearly, you have never worked at an animal shelter. I've been in rescue going on 9 years, and an easy 95% of the reasons given at surrender land squarely in the "pet is an inconvenience" category (i.e. my new apartment doesn't take pets, it's too big, I don't have time, my boyfriend doesn't like it, it digs holes in my garden, etc). These people can't get out of there fast enough.

And as for shelters being responsible, what about breeders? How about breeders start being a bit more careful about who THEY give animals to? Do you know how many purebred beagles I've seen surrendered because the owners weren't aware that beagles are incredibly vocal? Or chihuahuas whose buyers clearly thought they were purchasing a designer handbag? Seeing them, it's hard to believe that responsible placement had any role at all in the breeders' priorities. (And I won't even mention all of the purebred litters dumped in the shelter when they hit 6 months and passed their best-by date).

But okay, maybe I've only encountered irresponsible breeders, and perhaps there are decent breeders out there who truly care. So perhaps these breeders can also do a bit more to solve the problem? Perhaps when buyers complain that their new pups chew/bark/poop too much, breeders can start providing counseling and free training classes to help the animals stay in their homes? Perhaps they can encourage buyers to sterilize their pups or at least donate some of their profits to spay/neuter campaigns? Perhaps they can work together with animal rescue groups to push for stronger animal welfare laws which would ensure that humane conditions in breeding facilities?

Perhaps if breeders stepped up, those of us in rescue would feel a bit more goodwill. But as long as breeders grab the cash and run--leaving us to clean up their messes--I think we're probably going to continue to be a bit prickly.

Suzanne said...

J Bate, I actually DID work in an animal shelter, and I founded and ran my own small animal rescue. Both organizations operated in a rural part of Oregon with a higher poverty rate and fewer access to services of all kinds than most of the state. There were a lot of challenges, and I ran into my fair share of irresponsible, ignorant, and cruel people. But take another look at the numbers posted up there. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture, and consider that the vast majority of dogs that are bred and rehomed in the US never touch the shelter system, when you get a purposely bred dog into a rescue, it's an OUTLIER in the breeding world. Also consider what has helped make euthanasia rates go down so significantly in the past decade. Not being judgey or hateful or negative, I can tell you that.

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, thank you! It's very interesting about the picture alteration especially.

I'm a Canadian and we have people preaching the exact same thing about "don't breed and buy while shelter animals die". The only thing is our entire country in 2017 only put down around 200 adoptable/treatable dogs in 2017. Our dog population is 8.2 million. We are talking about 0.00003% of our healthy dog population being put down.

On top of this there are literally more import rescues here than dogs being put down, we have 231 import rescues which each import between 20-3000 dogs a year (many of whom make a business out of it as they flip these dogs very quickly and do not test for anything -- we have horror stories). There are also multiple stories of people stealing pets as certain dogs will make a person $1000+ here easily. Yet, when a very responsible breeder says something the school of piranha rescuers tear them to pieces. I'm not even kidding about any of this.