Spoiler alert: We’re seeing lots of exciting trends in U.S. shelter data, but keep at it—Dr. Emily Weiss says we are not done yet.
Every few years we pull together some staff to work on the development of national estimates regarding shelter intake and outcomes. I can’t wait until all of you are regularly submitting accurate data to Shelter Animals Count so that we can start moving away from the methodology of scouring for available publicly reported data to add to our CARDS database of communities to develop our estimates. Until then, it is great that we have some of the best talent for gathering, organizing and analyzing the data right in our own R&D department here at the ASPCA. Dr. Vic Spain, Dr. Margaret Slater and Shannon Gramann all made big lifts.
Data points to lower risk for animals in U.S. shelters
For this set, we used similar methods from our last estimates, which allowed us to look a bit at change over time as well as a current snapshot. What we found is exciting and compelling.
First, fewer dogs and cats are coming in to shelters compared to 5 years ago. In fact, we estimate that the number of dogs and cats entering U.S. shelters annually has declined from approximately 7.2 million in 2011 to 6.5 million in 2016. The decline was smaller for cats—with our estimate being a decline from 3.4 million to 3.2 million. For dogs, we found an estimated decline from 3.9 million to 3.3 million.
And it gets more exciting from there. We estimate that the number of dogs and cats euthanized in U.S. shelters annually has declined from approximately 2.6 million in 2011 to 1.5 million in 2016. Estimated dog euthanasia declined from 1.2 million to 670,000 and cat euthanasia declined from 1.4 million to 860,000. HOT DOG (and CAT)!
We also estimate that dog and cat adoptions have likely increased, and without a doubt the adoption rate for dogs and cats in shelters has increased. Our data shows dog adoption increasing from an estimated 1.4 million to 1.6 million and cats increasing from 1.3 million to 1.6 million. There was a smaller shift in RTO rate with dogs ticking up a bit, while cats remained at about the same level.
So what does all this mean? Clearly the data points to lower risk in the U.S. shelter system. The “why” for that is likely a combination of many factors, including improved client interactions at shelters, improved wellness and shelter operations, innovative programs such as fee-waived adoptions, Return to Field programs, increased awareness and access to affordable and accessible spay/neuter services.
Likely part of the shift is not a specific program being implemented at or by shelters, but instead a continued sea shift in the U.S. in which dogs—and cats as well, though they are lagging behind dogs—are increasingly seen as creatures with emotions and cognitive awareness. Or in other words: Our pets think and feel (pleasure, pain and all sorts of emotions in between) just as humans do. We suspect one of the important drivers is the continued shift for dogs and cats to be part of the family.
As we continue to view those who come to relinquish as owners who may just need a helping hand to be able to keep their pets, I can’t help but think this will have a significant impact on retention over the next five years. I find myself pointing to the ASPCA position statement regarding this philosophy often, as we continue to build and support programs aimed at retention.
There is still plenty to do inside the shelter doors. There are still an estimated 6.5 million dogs and cats entering shelters each year. While many shelters are seeing significant declines, there are areas in the country where the slope of decline is more gradual. In our estimates, the West and South had higher rates of intake per capita than other regions, meaning millions of animals become homeless each year and need support to go home. There are still great opportunities to shift numbers, with programs such as Adoption Ambassadors, Return to Field and Million Cat Challenge.
It would be fantastic if we could say that all pet homelessness and other risks (cruelty, for example) are bucketed within that shelter estimate—but they sure are not. Many dogs and cats are re-homed outside of the shelter system (to friends, family, strangers, veterinarians, etc.—see our re-homing study for more). Also, cruelty and neglect are happening still—much of it undetected throughout the country—encompassing areas as diverse as dog fighting and puppy mills. Not only is there still work to be done inside the shelter, the work outside of the shelter walls is still young.
Are you tackling the most pressing issues facing animals in your community? Do these trends jibe with what your community’s data is telling you? Please share your experiences.
Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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