National Studies Reveal Reasons Why Pet Owners Take Animals to Shelters and How Many Find New Homes

Note to Editors: Statistical breakdowns of four regional surveys that characterize pet owners who surrendered their animals to shelters in 1994 are available through Dr. M.D. Salman at Colorado State University. The four regional surveys were conducted in Colorado; Kentucky and Tennessee; New Jersey and New York; and California and explain the main reasons why pet owners relinquished their pets to shelters in those areas.

America’s mobile society is taking its toll on the nation’s pets and often at the cost of the pets’ lives, according to a pair of national studies coordinated by Colorado State University.

The two studies, conducted by Colorado State veterinary epidemiologist Dr. M.D. Salman and sponsored by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, reveal that moving and other lifestyle issues were the main reasons given by pet owners when surrendering their animals to shelters. But the majority of those pets–64 percent–are euthanized instead of adopted into new homes.

The studies also found that the majority of pet owners who surrender their animals to shelters are under 30 years of age and that more dogs are taken to shelters than cats and all other animals combined.

"Euthanasia of domestic pets in the United States is an epidemic," Salman said. "These studies give us the first glimpse of why so many pets are entering shelters and what happens once they are surrendered by their owners."

The council, a coalition of 11 non-profit and scientific organizations, started in 1993 to coordinate three epidemiological studies to characterize the problem of pet overpopulation. The first study, initiated by Colorado State in 1994, developed the most complete list to date of all animal shelters in the United States, as well as the number of animals entering the shelters and the disposition of these animals.

About 1,000 shelters in the United States responding as part of Shelter Statistics Survey accepted an estimated 4 million pets each year in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Of those sent to the reporting shelters that participated in the study, about 64 percent–or 8.2 million pets–were euthanized.

The survey also revealed that, on average, 42.5 percent of pets that entered animal shelters were submitted by animal control authorities and nearly 30 percent were surrendered by owners. The remainder were relinquished by other sources. Twenty-four percent, or 3 million, of the animals taken to shelters over the three-year period were adopted by new families. Only 10 percent, or 1.2 million, were reclaimed by their owners. (See accompanying fact sheet for full breakdown of the Reporting Shelter Statistic Survey.)

The studies mark the first, large-scale national effort to quantify pet overpopulation in the United States and identify reasons why pet owners relinquish their animals. With this information, the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy hopes to develop strategies to curb the epidemic of pets entering animal shelters.

"Up until this point, the nature and scope of pet overpopulation in the United States has been notoriously difficult to characterize," Salman said. "With the results of these studies, we have a much better picture of pet owners’ reasons for relinquishing pets and what happens to them once they enter shelters. Now we can use this information to identify ways that could help reduce the number of pets euthanized each year."

A second study also initiated in 1994 focused on the demographic characteristics of selected pet owners who surrendered their animals to 12 shelters in the United States over a one-year period. One region included three shelters located in Denver, Weld and Larimer counties in Colorado; a second region encompassed three shelters in Sacramento County, Calif.; a third region included two shelters in Jefferson County in Louisville, Ken., and two in Knox and Anderson counties in Tennessee; and a fourth region involved one shelter in Bergen County, N.J., and one in New York City. The regional studies were coordinated by the schools of veterinary medicine at Colorado State, University of California at Davis, University of Tennessee and Cornell University.

Investigators in these four regions interviewed 3,400 pet owners at designated animal shelters where their pets were relinquished. Pet owners who volunteered to take part in the survey were asked a series of questions about animals in their household, including the species of animal submitted to the shelter, whether there were problems with animal behavior and how many animals lived in the household. Pet owners also were asked their age, gender, annual salary, education level as well as questions about the pet owner’s knowledge of caring for animals and why they chose to surrender their pet to a shelter.

Of the 70 reasons pet owners could cite for relinquishing their pets, about 15 percent said their animals were ill or old and needed to be euthanized; 7 percent said they were moving; 5 percent felt they had too many animals; 4 percent said owning a pet cost too much; and 3.5 percent said the animals had soiled the house.

In addition, the majority of respondents–62 percent–were under 30 years of age and 52 percent had at least finished high school.

A third and final study, expected to be completed this year, involves a national survey of 80,000 households to determine the characteristics of responsible pet owners, estimate the incidence of pets being relinquished to animal shelters and determine the disposition of dogs and cats within homes.

Salman and other council members hope that results generated by the three studies will provide a scientific basis for developing intervention, educational or other types of programs targeted at existing pet owners or prospective pet owners.

"Some of the reasons pet owners cited for giving up their pets to shelters may be resolved through educational or other types of programs," Salman said. "Most of the problems are really not with the animals, but rather with pet owners who may not be knowledgeable enough about or prepared for the realities of owning a pet."

The council is composed of 11 non-profit and scientific organizations. Members include the American Animal Hospital Association, American Humane Association, American Kennel Club, American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, American Veterinary Medical Association, Association of Teachers for Veterinary Public Health and Preventative Medicine, Cat Fanciers Association, The Humane Society of the United States, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the National Animal Control Association and the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators.

Colorado State University’s Epidemiology and Animal Disease Surveillance Systems is the scientific coordinator for the council. The center is based in the department of environmental health in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.