How to beat pet homelessness—an easier solution than first thought?

American researchers conduct a first-ever look into the problem of pet homelessness in the United States and find that reducing the number of pets being rehomed—over a million cats and dogs annually—may be easier than it seems.

While there’s been plenty of work studying the saga of abandoned pets, most have documented events post-surrender, meaning the factors that most impact the tough decision are largely unknown.

But animal groups like the American SPCA have been trying to fill in the blanks, hoping that if the circumstances behind owner relinquishment are better understood they can in turn better prevent this worst-case scenario.

Using phone surveys to gather information about thousands of surrender and non-surrender situations, the group’s findings are a little surprising—but promising. It turns out that with a bit of help, many who relinquished their pets would never have chosen to.

Study lead and ASPCA vice president of research and development Dr. Emily Weiss writes that while some of the reasons people chose to re-home their pets were quite complex and difficult to change, many problems might have been easily resolved through affordable, accessible veterinary care, pet-friendly housing options, and access to other basic resources.

A chart quantifying the reasons why a pet needed to be re-homed, and who it was re-homed with. Source:
A chart quantifying the reasons why a pet needed to be re-homed, and who it was re-homed with. Source:

‘Knowing that many pet owners would’ve opted to keep their pet with them if they’d had access to such critical services illustrates the need for programmes and services that intervene and reach these pet owners before they’re forced to make this difficult decision,’ she writes. ‘This is especially crucial in underserved communities where poverty rates are high and access to resources is limited.’

Weiss writes that their team were motivated to do the research because one of the most straightforward and impactful ways to decrease homelessness and subsequent shelter burdens is to simply keep pets at home where they belong. The study noted that almost exactly equal numbers of re-homed pets went given to family or friends as did shelters—37 and 36 percent respectively. Veterinarians and strangers also took on their fair share of the burden, handling 14 and 11 percent of the re-homing population.

‘Keeping pets who have homes in their homes and out of shelters keep our shelters available for the dogs and cats that really need the support,’ she writes. ‘When we keep pets in their original home, we keep the homes they could have been re-homed to open—doubling our impact.

The study also revealed that a majority of relinquished animals weren’t really given a fair chance to become part of the family. Most animals were fairly young—the average dog between five months and two years of age, having generally spent less than a year in home—and reproductively intact. More female than male dogs were surrendered, but cats suffered in equal proportions.

The study comes on the back of major ASPCA re-homing prevention programs already being tested in especially hard-hit parts of the country. In June of 2014 the group launched a safety net program at two high-intake shelters in Los Angeles country, so far aiding some 4,100 animals. Around 80 percent of the cases they’ve taken on have wound up successful, with pets being retained in their homes. Over the past five years the group has also donated some $4 million to an additional 300 facilities in 46 states to establish more safety net programs.

Knowing the facts that influence pet surrender—which the ASPCA estimates to impact an estimated six percent (some 7.6 million animals) of the American pet population every five years—could help the group and worldwide equivalents tackle the planet’s growing homeless pet problem, and that’d be a big relief for everyone involved, not least the animal victims themselves.