Who Are The Stray Animals In Our Shelters?
Late in 2010, Dr. Margaret Slater, Dr. Linda Lord and I conducted a piece of research focused on learning more about the frequency of pets getting lost, as well as the percents of those animals then recovered. We were really interested in starting to look at the question of who are those stray animals in our shelters, and gathering this information was a step toward that goal. The study has just been published in the peer reviewed journal Animals, and is available to you here:
This study is, to our knowledge, the first published national study regarding lost pets, and it is filled with data that is of potential interest and importance to our field. We conducted the research though a cross-sectional national random digit dial telephone interview. A total of 2,666 households were successfully contacted, with 39% percent of those having owned a dog or cat in the past 5 years.
Those who did own a dog or cat in the past 5 years were asked a few questions about that pet (sex, neuter status, etc.). That included pets no longer in the home. They were then asked: “The next series of questions has to do with whether your pet has ever become lost. Examples of this include: your pet ran away from home, your pet was gone longer than expected, your pet didn’t come home when he/she usually does, your pet escaped from the yard or house.” The question was very purposely worded as such to capture a wide net of “lost.”
Our results found that 15% of pet owners in our sample had lost a dog or a cat in the past 5 years, and the percentage of lost dogs vs. lost cats was quite similar – 14% of dogs and 15% for cats. We were and are quite interested in this rate. It is lower than we anticipated, and has some interesting implications when we use these estimates to account for lost pets nationally – but more on that in a bit.
We asked survey respondents if they found their pet after he/she went missing – 85% of those lost dogs and cats were recovered. This recovery rate was also higher than we anticipated, and when we looked at the recovery rate for dogs vs. cats, it gets even juicier – with 93% of dogs found and 74% of cats found.
The methods used by those searching for a lost cat vs. a lost dog varied significantly. 49% of owners found their dog by searching the neighborhood, and 15% of the dogs were recovered because of a tag or microchip. For cats, 59% of owners found their pets because they returned home on their own, and 30% found their cat by searching the neighborhood. Dr. Lord discovered a similar pattern in earlier research, and she further found in that research that cat owners tend to wait 3 days before searching for their cat, while dog owners tend to wait 1 day. Educating cat owners that if they lose their cat they should immediately search their neighborhood would be a great way to take a piece of this research and put it into action!
So who are those strays in our shelters? It is interesting that only 6% of dog owners and 2% of cat owners found their lost pets at a shelter – and remember, most of them found their pets.
In our data set, we found that dogs and cats were not significantly more likely to have been lost if they were unaltered, and that human demographics such as age and income were not highly correlated with the pet getting lost. While more supportive data would be needed, this suggests that some myths around factors that increase the likelihood a pet might get lost may need refining.
What interests me most: The number of lost pets and the number of those lost who get recovered indicates that there is a possibility that a significant percentage of the stray dogs and cats in the shelters around the country do not have someone looking for them. If we use the APPA pet estimates to extrapolate the number of dogs lost and not recovered in 5 years, we end up with 766,360. That is, 766,360 dogs in 5 years who were not found. Now, even if all of those dogs ended up in shelters around the nation, that does not come close to the number of stray dogs who are coming into shelters nationally in a five-year period. While fewer cats are recovered than dogs, the numbers for cats also suggests that at least some proportion of the non-feral stray cats entering our shelters is not lost. But… if they are not lost, what are they?
While we need more research, it is prudent at this point to consider the population of stray dogs and cats in your facility — if many of those may in fact not be lost, but potentially abandoned, or a community dog or cat who was supported to some extent within a neighborhood. Knowing the exact locations where these dogs and cats are found can be a vital piece of unraveling that puzzle (To learn more about location targeting, read about ASPCA research on GIS targeting).
Preventing these dogs and cats from entering our shelters takes a different set of tools than the tools we use to keep lost pets from entering our shelters (ID tags, educating the community about search methods, etc.). It may be that pet support services (temporary boarding, vet care, food banks, etc.) are needed in the community to decrease that percentage of strays – or even more outside-the-box programming of community advocates to help cease the growth of the community dog or cat populations.