Decade of adoption focus fails to reduce shelter killing
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2009:
A decade that began with giddy hope that the U.S. might soon
become a no-kill nation is ending with the numbers of dogs and cats
killed in animal shelters still stubbornly hovering at 4.2 million,
right where it was in 2002, with the average for the decade at 4.5
million, where it was in 1999.
The numbers repudiate the emphasis of campaigns that seek to
reduce shelter killing chiefly by increasing adoptions, instead of
preventing the births of the cats and dogs who are most likely to
enter shelters and be killed.
In fact, dog acquisition “market share” has barely changed
in almost 30 years, when shelter adoptions are combined with
adoptions of found strays.
The first major study of dog acquisition, by Richard Nassar
et al in 1981, reported that about 10% of pet dogs came from
shelters; 6.4% were found as strays. Several similar studies done
circa 15 years later discovered that the percentage of dogs acquired
from shelters had increased to as much as 14%, but the percentage
found as strays had dropped slightly, with fewer strays at large to
The most recent studies show that shelter dog adoption market
share in most communities is slightly more than 20%, but since
strays at large have all but vanished from much of the U.S.,
adopting strays directly from the street has nearly disappeared as a
common source of dog acquisition.
The major change in dog acquisition since 1981 is simply that
dogs who used to be adopted from the streets are now passing through
shelters before being adopted. The intervention of shelters helps to
ensure that these dogs are sterilized and thereby do not contribute
to the dog surplus.
However, as a factor in reducing the killing of dogs who
have already been born, the net contribution of all the increased
effort to adopt out dogs over the past 30 years appears to be
The combined rate of cat adoption from shelters and from the
feral population has edged up from about 24% of acquisition market
share in 1981 to more than 40% today. At the same time, the pet cat
reproduction rate had dropped to less than the numbers needed for
replacement by 1994, according to National Council on Pet Population
Study data. As of 1994, about 70% of the U.S. pet cat population
The increase in the U.S. pet cat population from circa 60
million then to nearly 90 million now has been driven by adoptions of
feral-born kittens and the increased longevity of cats who are kept
indoors, now about two-thirds of all pet cats.
The April 15, 2009 edition of the Journal of the American
Veterinary Medical Association published a report by Alley Cat
Allies-funded researchers Karyen Chu, Wendy M. Anderson, and Micha
Y. Rieser that about 80% of the U.S. pet cat population were
sterilized, as of 2007, and that 81.7% of the females were
sterilized before birthing any kittens. By implication this finding
affirmed ANIMAL PEOPLE projections of the rate of adoption of
feral-born kittens needed to sustain the U.S. pet cat population and
account for an annual rate of pet cat population increase of about
1%: about 3.6 million per year.
If from 70% to 90% of the 2.5 million cats killed in U.S.
shelters are also feral, as shelter workers often estimate, the
U.S. feral cat population must include at least 5.4 to 6 million
reproducing females to produce enough kittens, after pre-weaning
mortality of about 50%, to withstand the rate of human take-off plus
the effects of predation by coyotes and other wildlife, roadkills,
Yet the U.S. feral cat population also cannot be much higher
than the number needed to maintain itself, since there are no
indications of any net increase. The number of cats killed by U.S.
shelters dropped rapidly from upward of nine million in 1985 to 3.2
million a decade later, slid to about 2.4 million by 1997, and has
hovered between 2.3 million and 2.5 million ever since, except in
2006, when the total dipped to 2.0 million. The economic shocks of
2001-2002 and 2007-2008 appear to account for the only upward
fluctuations, as both resulted in less funding being available for
The rate of shelter killing has dropped gradually from 16.6
dogs and cats per 1,000 Americans in 1999 to 13.5–but this merely
returns the U.S. to the rate of 1950, when virtually all pets
roamed, none were sterilized, a third of all dogs were still
homeless vagrants, more cats were feral than in homes, and little
effort was made to collect and kill animals whose presence was not a
specific health or safety issue.
As public policy shifted toward zero tolerance of
free-roaming dogs, and less tolerance of roving cats, shelter
killing increased tenfold–and then fell with the advent of pet
sterilization in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by the introduction
of neuter/return feral cat control in the early 1990s.
In the mid-1990s, however, 25 years of rapid progress to
reduce shelter killing appeared to hit limits to what could be done
without more effective approaches to controlling the reproduction of
the cats and dogs who are most likely to enter shelters, and
eventually be killed as unadoptable.
Among the unadoptables in 2009, based on 2006-2008 data,
will be upward of 1.8 million cats who cannot be handled, believed
to be mostly feral, and as many as 967,300 pit bull terriers who
have either flunked behavioral screening or are just too numerous for
shelters to accommodate.
Pit bulls have increased from about 40% of the dogs killed in
shelters at the beginning of the present decade to 58% now. Yet the
percentage of pit bull intake killed in shelters has fallen from
upward of 90% at the beginning of the present decade to about 80% at
present, through the advent of standardized behavioral testing, in
place of policies against adopting out any pit bulls.
The numbers of pit bulls killed have not dropped parallel to
the rate of pit bull killing because pit bull intakes have increased
to about 1.2 million per year. Pit bulls are the only breed to show
a sustained rate of rising shelter admissions throughout the decade.
Of the total U.S. pit bull population of circa 3.5 million,
about a third arrive at a shelter in any given year, at an average
age of about 18 months. This is the same average age and rate,
relative to their number on farms, at which steers go to slaughter.
Two-thirds to 80% of the pit bulls entering shelters are
surrendered by their keepers. Most of the rest are impounded,
either for behavior or as victims of abuse and neglect.
California Governor Arnold Sch-warzenegger on June 19, 2009
released findings about shelter adoption from the California
Legislative Analyst’s Office which persuaded him to propose repealing
the 1998 Hayden Law. The Hayden Law requires that Calif-ornia
shelters must hold impounded dogs and cats for at least five days to
permit reclaims and provide adoption opportunities, if the animals
are not suffering from painful illness or injury. The law also
provides state subsidies for holding animals longer before killing
Explained the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, “That
shelters keep animals alive longer increases the supply of animals in
shelters on any specific day. It also gives animal rescue
organizations more time to transfer animals to their facilities.
This can give households greater choice in selecting a pet to adopt.
It does not necessarily mean, however, that more households adopt
pets,” even though “many shelters, animal rescue, and humane
groups have taken significant steps towards promoting animal
The California Legislative Analyst’s Office identified a
major flaw in the Hayden Law. “Under the mandate’s reimbursement
methodology,” the Legislative Analyst’s Office pointed out,
“shelters do not get more state funds if more households adopt
animals. Rather, shelters that euthanize the most animals receive
the most state funds,” because holding animals longer does not
appreciably increase adoptions, while “Shelters that are the most
successful in promoting adoptions receive the least state funds,”
because they find homes for animals faster.
The California Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended that
“If the Legislature wishes to give shelters more incentives to
promote animal adoptions, we recommend the Legislature try a
different approach,” such as “an incentive program that gives
funding to those shelters that increase the number of animals
This is the goal of the Shelter Pet Project, a project of
Maddie’s Fund, announced two days before Schwarzenegger proposed to
repeal the Hayden Law.
“There are around three million healthy or treatable dogs and
cats put to death in shelters each year,” explained the Maddie’s
Fund press release. “Fourteen million people have adopted shelter
pets already, and another 41 million have indicated that they are
considering doing so. Of them, 17 million will bring a pet into
their family in the next year. We only need to convince three
million of those 17 million to do what they are already considering
doing, get their new pet from a shelter, and every treatable or
healthy cat or dog in America will have found a home.
“America’s approximately 4,000 animal shelters currently
adopt out more than four million pets per year–between two and three
per shelter, per day,” continued the Maddie’s Fund release. “By
simply increasing that by an additional two pets per shelter, per
day, the three million healthy and treatable pets who currently lose
their lives in shelters will be saved.”
This math presumes an equation of “healthy or treatable” with “adoptable.”
However, most definitions of “adoptable” do not include cats
who cannot be handled or dogs who may be dangerous. About two-thirds
of the cats and dogs killed in U.S. shelters are in those categories.
In addition, classified ads for dogs offered for either sale
or adoption indicate that pit bulls are not more than 5% of the total
U.S. dog population, meaning that they are not the breed of choice
for 95% of the people who are acquiring a dog.
Thus, even if all dogs in shelters were adoptable, even if
the number of people adopting a shelter pet could be increased by
three million, and even if they adopted pit bulls at more than 10
times the rate of acquisition by the public, about 25% of the dogs
killed in shelters would still be pit bulls.
Only preventing their births will prevent their premature
deaths–and the cost of achieving a shelter adoption is currently
three to four times the cost of sterilization surgery.
The ANIMAL PEOPLE projection of regional and national
shelter killing tolls each year is based on compiling the tolls from
every open admission shelter handling significant numbers of animals
in specific cities, counties, or states. The sample base each year
is proportionately weighted to ensure regional balance. Only data
from the three most recent fiscal years is used.