Vet Visits, Obedience Schools Help Keep Dogs at Home

Vet Visits, Obedience Schools Help Keep Dogs at Home

Owner ignorance populates shelters with abandoned dogs and cats

By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 08/31/1996 Category: | Canine Issues | Shelter Issues |

Early in the 1990s, animal rights activists began campaigns to condemn breeders for the death of dogs and cats in animal shelters. "If you didn't breed, we wouldn't have to kill" the pseudo-logic went. "Every puppy you sell means a shelter dog will die." The Humane Society of the US called for a breeding ban until shelters are empty; Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo County, California, euthanized a dog on the evening news to sway voters; and the rhetoric against breeders increased exponentially.

The activists fought for large license fees for intact animals and permits for each breeding with emotional diatribes against breeders. On the heels of successful campaigns in San Mateo and King County, Washington, they took their show on the road and spawned similar attempts throughout the US. Communities in Colorado, Florida, Alabama, Maryland, Texas and other states have faced the onslaught, and breeders have been on the defensive.

No more. Coalitions and clubs resisting these proposals have new evidence for their case - a scientific study that identifies owner ignorance of normal pet behavior and low or no acquisition cost as the highest risks for surrender of a family pet and concludes that education will help keep many of those animals out of shelters. Gary Patronek VMD, PhD, one of the principle investigators on the study, presented the results at the NAIA Purebred Rescue Symposium in March. The work was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association on August 1, and is corroborated in another study reported in the August 15 issue of the Journal.

Patronek and his Purdue University colleagues concluded that dog owners who pay more than $100 for a dog, take him to a veterinarian more than once a year, and participate in obedience classes are more likely to provide a long-term home for the animal.

Veterinary care and obedience classes may reinforce the bonding of pet and owner, the researchers wrote:


". . . by allowing the owner to experience and appreciate the positive aspects of pet ownership such as companionship, affection, entertainment, and security without overreacting to or being distracted by disruptive or unwanted behavior."


Their conclusions challenge the assertions of animal rights activists that breeders directly and indirectly produce an "overpopulation" of pets that clog shelters and result in euthanasia of millions of healthy but homeless animals. Their conclusions also provide testimony for early intervention through education, a solution that breeders, breed clubs, kennel clubs, and the American Kennel Club have promoted for years.



The dog numbers

The research was done at the Humane Society of St. Joseph, Mishawaka, Indiana. The team compiled separate information for dogs and cats; they interviewed 380 people who surrendered their dogs for adoption and 905 owners who kept their animals. The control group was chosen from a random sample of dog-owning St. Joseph County residents.


  • 54 percent of the dogs surrendered were six months to three years old
  • 15 percent were less than six months old. (The study included only acquired dogs, not surrendered litters.)
  • 51 percent of dogs surrendered had been purchased for less than $100 from a breeder or private owner.
  • Nearly 9 percent from these private sources cost more than $100 ;
  • 2.5 percent came from pet stores;
  • 3.9 percent from litters produced in the home.
  • Nearly 20 percent of the surrendered dogs came from a shelter,
  • About the same number were acquired as strays.
  • Nearly 41 percent of the surrendered dogs were obtained free from the previous owner.


Behavior problems occurring daily that contributed to surrender were:

  • barking, 41 percent;
  • chewing, 24 percent
  • hyperactivity, 45 percent;
  • housetraining accidents, 21 percent;
  • aggression to people, less than 9 percent.


Dog conclusions

  • Purebred pets are at lower risk of surrender to shelters than mixed breeds,
  • Dogs purchased for more than $100 have the lowest risk factors of all.
  • Dogs less than two years old are at highest risk for abandonment, especially if they are mixed breed, unneutered, live in a family with children, or require more care or attention than the owners expected when they obtained the animal.
  • Dogs acquired between the ages of one and two years are at higher risk for abandonment than puppies, perhaps because they came to their new owners with established behavior problems.
  • Dogs that are adopted from a shelter are at relatively high risk of return, leading to the idea that behavior counseling programs at shelters should be evaluated to determine their effectiveness.
  • Dogs that spend most of their time separated from the family, either in crates or in the yard, are at greater risk. This discovery should warn obedience instructors, shelter staffs, and veterinarians who recommend the use of a crate that they must provide clear information on its proper use.
  • Dogs that visit the veterinarian more than once a year and those that attend obedience classes - the best places to get educational information on behavior - are more likely to remain in their original homes.

Curiously, the discovery that increased veterinary visits can influence a dog's longevity in the home comes at a time when the trend is toward fewer visits, not more. Early rabies and parvovirus vaccination and sterilization can wrap up a puppy's regular visits by the age of four months - before owners get tired of chewing, barking, and other normal but exasperating behaviors.

"Such practices will compress preventive veterinary care for puppies into a shorter period and fewer visits, as has been reported in the United Kingdom, thus decreasing opportunities for client counseling by veterinarians during the period of greatest risk for relinquishment," the researchers concluded. "Although these results should not discourage prepubertal sterilization of dogs, they highlight the importance of maintaining and perhaps increasing the frequency of contact with clients during the dog's juvenile and early adult years."


The cat numbers

An estimated four million cats are euthanized in animal shelters each year, about twice the number of dogs. The research included 218 households that relinquished cats to the shelter and 459 households that kept their pets. Feral cats and litters surrendered to the shelter were not included.

Age, annual veterinary visits, owner expectations, behavior problems, and whether the cat lived indoors or out were the major actors affecting relinquishment.

  • 78 percent of relinquished cats were less than three years old
  • more than 21 percent were less than six months old.
  • More than 42 percent of surrendered cats were acquired free from the previous owner
  • 21.1 percent were purchased or adopted;
  • 9.6 percent were received as gifts.
  • Only 7.3 percent of surrendered cats came from pet stores;
  • 8.3 percent came from shelters;
  • 17.4 percent were adopted as strays.
  • Cats that spent most of their day in a basement or garage, and cats that had access to outdoors were at greater risk of relinquishment.
  • Only 21.1 percent of relinquished cats visited a veterinarian more than once a year.

"Nearly a third of relinquishments were attributed to the cat being sexually intact," the researchers reported. Although the cost of sterilizing cats is lower than that for dogs, more cat owners cited cost as the reason for failure to spay or neuter their pets. This situation "may have reflected the way cats are perceived and valued by their owners."

Cat owners who kept their cats indoors were more likely to consider them one of the family and less likely to surrender them to a shelter. Behavior problems tied to surrender were inappropriate elimination (17 percent daily occurrences, 11 percent weekly); inappropriate scratching (23.9 percent daily, 9.6 percent weekly); and aggression towards people (12.8 daily, 4.1 weekly).

Because elimination problems can be medical as well as behavioral, researchers noted that owners should be educated to seek veterinary help when this problem occurs.


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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