Demographics of the shelter dog population

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1993:

While good statistical data on the
U.S. animal shelter dog population is
scarce, what is available largely supports
Margaret Anne Cleek’s contention (left)
that large dogs are disproportionately rep-
resented, while small dogs remain in
strong demand. Before accepting Cleek’s
commentary, ANIMAL PEOPLE
checked her various contentions about the
nature of dogs entering and exiting shelters
with a variety of shelter managers from
across the U.S. who were attending the
American Humane Association annual con-
ference in Baltimore, October 10-13.
None had precise statistics for large dog
versus small dog intakes and adoptions,
but the experience of the North Shore
Animal League, which adopts out 43,000
animals a year, proved typical, even at
small rural shelters in remote regions.

“We adopt out about two small
dogs for every big dog,” NSAL public rela-
tions director Marge Stein quoted adop-
tions manager Michael Arms. “We find we
can place healthy poodles and other popu-
lar small dogs up to six or seven years of
age, but it’s very hard to place a large dog,
even a very nice purebred, who’s older
than three.”
The only figures ANIMAL PEO-
PLE could find pertaining to large dog vs.
small dog shelter admissions came from
four shelters that each counted purebreds
received during a recent two-year period.
Each reported that purebreds made up from
22% to 29% of their total admissions.
Among them, they admitted 1,234 pure-
breds. The 10 breeds most frequently
received were:
Breed   Number  Euth.
German shepherds 342 58%
Labrador retrieve rs 198 n/a
Doberman pinschers 169 36%
Golden retriever s 143 n/a
Beagles 138 57%
Cocker spaniels 89 n/a
Toy & mini p oodles 49 29%
Siberia n huskies 32 22%
Irish s etters 30 n/a
Pit bull terriers 10 100%
In all, there were 926 large pure-
breds received, and only 277 small pure-
breds (including just one n o t among the
top 10 breeds.) In short, three out of four
purebreds entering these shelters were
large, whereas adoption demand favors
small dogs two to one.
Within the large and small head-
ings, the distribution by breed in the shel-
ter sample approximated the apparent dis-
tribution of the dog population at large, as
measured by licensing data. For instance,
the ratio of German shepherds to Labrador
retrievers, the two most popular breeds, is
63/37 in the shelter sample and 56/44 in
the available licensing statistics. Licensing
data, however, indicates that German
shepherds make up only 14% of the dog
population at large, and Labrador retriev-
ers only 11%. German shepherds came to
28% of the shelter sample; Labrador
retrievers are 16%.
American Kennel Club registra-
tion statistics indicate that the ten most
popular purebreds over the past several
years have been Labrador retrievers,
cocker spaniels, German shepherds, poo-
dles, golden retrievers, beagles, dachs-
hunds, and then Yorkshire terriers,
Chihuahuas, and Pekingese. AKC data can
be extremely misleading because the num-
ber of registered litters is low enough that a
sudden burst of breeding can propel a rela-
tively rare dog into the top 10, as hap-
pened in 1992 when Rottweilers ranked
second in registrations and Shetland sheep
dogs and chows were ninth and 10th.
Going into 1992, AKC data suggested
there were only 500,000 Rottweilers in the
whole U.S.
Still, the AKC order over a
multi-year period confirms that the bigger
breeds are over-represented in shelters,
and that the more aggressive big breeds
seem to be the most over-represented.
The euthanasia rates in the shelter
sample, when known, were approximately
the same for the large purebreds and small
purebreds, but there were further circum-
stances to consider.
We knew from the newsletters of
the respective shelters that most of the 138
beagles received were hunting dogs who
had been surrendered at the close of the
hunting season. Having been kept outdoors
and having had minimal human contact, as
well as having been trained to chase other
animals, they were mostly not suitable for
adoption. We also suspected that many of
the poodles and cockers had been rescued
from puppy mills and animal collectors,
had serious health problems, and were
therefore also unsuitable for adoption.
To look at the percentage of ani-
mals received from puppy mills and animal
collectors in any small sampling of shelters
could be very misleading, because of the
huge number of animals received in any
one raid, the likelihood that most of the
animals taken from a given site would be of
the same breed type, and the relative infre-
quency of such raids: because of the high
cost of impounding large numbers of ani-
mals at once, most animal control agencies
can’t afford to raid more than one or two
puppy mills and/or collectors per year.
Instead we opened our files on
animal collector and puppy mill raids
across the country and tallied up what
breed and species data we could cull from
the press accounts. (No accounts provided
any other hints about the size of the dogs
rescued.) We had animal counts from 101
cases in all, 80 involving collectors and 21
involving breeders whose activity fit the
collector pattern (individual or family oper-
ation, noncommercial property, similar
apparent psychological profile including
social isolation and hostility toward
euthanasia even of seriously ill or injured
In nine cases involving 2,053
dogs and cats, the balance of species could
not be determined. Among the others, 48
individuals had more than 10 cats; 76 indi-
viduals had more than 10 dogs. The raids
took in totals of 3,734 cats and 6,091 dogs.
The average number of cats pos-
sessed by individuals with more than 10
was 93. The median range (18 individuals)
was 40 to 85 cats. Thirteen individuals,
however, had more than 100 cats, five of
them had more than 200, and one had 470.
The average number of dogs pos-
sessed by individuals with more than 10
was 86. The median range (32 individuals)
was 20-50, considerably lower than the
median range for cats, but 19 individuals
had more than 100 dogs, of whom five had
more than 200, three had more than 300,
and one––a purported rescuer, not an
intentional breeder––had 750.
Only 220 of the 3,734 cats were
identified as purebreds, but they represent-
ed 14 different breed classifications. All
220 came from the same breeder, who was
initially raided as a dog collector; the cats,
in equally sad shape, were simply discov-
ered on the premises.
However, press accounts identi-
fied dogs by breed or breed type after 48
raids. The breakdown:
Breed   Raids    Impounded
Akita 1 1
Aussie shepherd 1 19
Beagle 3 5
Borzoi 1 118
Chihuahua 5 293
Chow 1 2
Dauschund 2 49
English sheepdog 1 5
Fox terrier 2 4 1
German shepherd 3 18
Greyhound 3 183
Maltese 1 15
Mini pinscher 1 28
Pomeranian 1 10
Schnauzer 1 55
Siberian husky 1 27
Pekingese 1 15
Pit bull terrier 3 40
Rat terrier 1 67
Rottweiler 1 1
Shar Pei 1 110
Shi Tzu 1 28
Spitz/Samoyed cr. 1 18
Toy/mini p oodle 10 718
Wolf hybrid 1 20
Yorkshire terrier 2 53
In all, 16 raids caught people seri-
ously neglecting an average of 17 large
dogs apiece, for a total of 273. Two other
raids caught breeders with 178 greyhounds
and 110 Shar Peis, respectively, but the
numbers in these two cases were so far
beyond the norms of the others that includ-
ing them in the averages would build in
gross distortion.
By contrast, 33 raids (twice as
many) caught people seriously neglecting
an average of 49 small dogs apiece (three
times as many) for a total of 1,508. The
chihuahua owners seriously neglected 59
apiece, on average, and the poodle owners
seriously neglected 72 apiece. Neither the
chihuahua line nor the poodle line was dis-
torted by including any one person with far
more of these dogs than anyone else had.
Four factors may explain the dis-
proportionate representation of small dogs
in the collector/breeder raid sample: the
greater likelihood that small dogs will be
kept indoors, out of sight, sound, and
smell of neighbors; the greater vulnerabili-
ty of small animals to abuse without physi-
cal risk to the abuser; the psychological
need of collectors for animals they com-
monly refer to as “babies”; and market
demand for small puppies.
Because small dogs are dispropor-
tionately represented in mass seizures, it is
altogether possible that across the U.S.,
mass seizures do bring in a greatly dispro-
portionate number of the small dogs in
shelters, and that accordingly the euthana-
sia rate for small dogs, whatever it is, does
not directly reflect the high demand for
them in the same manner that the high
euthanasia rate for large dogs does directly
reflect the evident surplus.
Seven of the 21 breeders whose
animals were included in the above tally
were breeding large dogs; only the two
mentioned above had more than 27 dogs
total. The remaining 15 breeders were pro-
ducing small dogs; eight of them were
among the 19 individuals with more than
100 dogs.
Thus one could even argue that
the imbalance between the supply of ani-
mals at shelters and market demand is help-
ing to keep puppy millers and backyard
breeders in business.
The catch is that we have no data
on the size distribution of the 4,000-odd
dogs seized from collectors and puppy
mills for whom press accounts did not pro-
vide breed identification. We also have no
data on the number and size of animals
acquired by animal collectors as strays, as
opposed to the number produced by unin-
tentional breeding among an unneutered
and neglected colony.
We don’t even have data, as yet,
on the percentage of animals in shelters
who come from collector and puppy mill
raids. Without this information, accurately
measuring the influence of collectors and
puppy mills on shelter intake, adoption and
euthanasia rates is impossible. What we
can safely say is that an influence exists
and needs to be looked at in greater depth
as better information becomes available.
––Merritt Clifton
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