Animal Shelter and Pet Rescue Issues for the 21st Century

Animal Shelter and Pet Rescue Issues for the 21st Century

We’re making progress!

By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 12/31/1997 Category: | Canine Issues | Shelter Issues |

On September 21, Gary Patronek VMD, PhD, stood in front of 200 rescue advocates in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and said that "pet overpopulation" is a meaningless term.

Patronek, acting director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, said that rather than focusing on "overpopulation," evidence shows that shelters and rescuers would do better to target the "disease of euthanasia" - which may be responsible for 30 percent of all canine deaths.

The occasion was the annual rescue conference of the Michigan Purebred Dog Rescue Alliance. During his talk Patronek praised the success of efforts to reduce numbers - shelter deaths are down to five or six million animals, he said, sterilization of pets has reached 63 percent of all dogs and 80 percent of all owned cats and shelter intakes are down. He also presented studies to define the extent of the current problem in various areas and to suggest strategies for intervention to save animals in the future.


Population Issues

National and local groups constantly beat the drum of "pet overpopulation," and this Johnny-one-note approach to reducing shelter deaths has taken on a life of its own. Even veterinarians spread the word to their clients: "spay your pet because 13 million dogs and cats die in shelters each year." The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offers a $300 prize to the Dog Writer's Association of America contest entrant who has written the best article on finding solutions to "pet overpopulation" and various groups use the phrase as a mantra to raise money and draft legislation to restrict breeding.

But Patronek urges a close look at the studies that have been done. He said that the number of puppies born each year is "close to reaching equilibrium with the demand for pets" and that some areas of the country are experiencing a puppy shortage and are importing puppies from other areas to meet the local demand. But the myth of "overpopulation" persists because:

  • there are regional imbalances in puppy populations in shelters;
  • people cannot abandon the idea that the breeding of a puppy that was wanted at one time is linked to the euthanasia of that dog when it became unwanted;
  • the problem of unwanted kittens persists and some shelters do not realize that the dog and cat demographics are different and require different solutions;
  • deeply held historical beliefs that breeding cannot be condoned and possibly the uncertainty about how to retreat from this position in areas without an oversupply without appearing to send a mixed message to areas where puppy problems persist or cat problems abound;
  • awareness of the issues and the resulting dilemmas at the national level have not filtered down to smaller shelters, local advocacy groups, and veterinarians.

The almost universal acceptance of "pet overpopulation" as the definition of the disease keeps animal welfare advocates from recognizing one simple fact - spay and neuter surgeries have dramatically reduced the number of litters dumped at shelters.

"We're almost a victim of our own success in getting the message out about spay and neuter," Patronek said. "We may be facing a problem in animal welfare community that no one anticipated. People want animals. If we don't want people to get animals from sources we think are inhumane, we should make sure they can get animals from sources we approve of."

Patronek said that some areas have a shortage of puppies, which leads to concern about the supply of puppies for the future.

"Despite the difficulty of obtaining puppies in some areas, there is little evidence to suggest that the demand for puppies has diminished or that the public is more willing to consider an adult dog for a pet. About 84 percent of dog owners acquire their dogs as puppies but currently only three-to-four percent of dog-owning households have a litter in any given year," he said. "Only 12 percent of female dogs will have a litter in their lifetime and 67 percent of litters are planned."

In areas where unwanted litters are dumped at animal shelters, the task is to reach those owners who do not plan a litter but have not taken the step to spay or neuter their pet. Research has shown that cost is generally not a factor, Patronek said, but owners have given several other reasons, including that they forgot to make the appointment, they consider it inconvenient to set a time for the surgery and recovery, and they don't believe in sterilization.


About The Author

Norma Bennett Woolf's photo
Norma Bennett Woolf -

Editor and Writer for the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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