Testing the finding of record low shelter killing–and looking for even better
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2010:
U.S. shelter killing of dogs and cats appears to have fallen
by 17% during the past three years, according to the 17th annual
ANIMAL PEOPLE analysis of shelter exit data, and for the first time
since 1950 has dropped below 13.5 per 1,000 Americans.
Canadian data, last included in the analysis in 2000, shows
comparable progress during the past decade in four of the five
largest cities, but lack of recent statistics from British Columbia,
the Atlantic provinces, and rural areas allows question as to
whether these numbers are representative of the nation.
The current rate of shelter killing of dogs and cats in the
U.S. appears to have dipped to 11.6, the lowest on record. The 3.6
million dogs and cats killed in U.S. animal shelters is the lowest
total since circa 1955.
The rate of decline since the 2009 ANIMAL PEOPLE report on
shelter killing appears to have been the steepest since the
introduction of neuter/return feral cat control to the U.S. nearly 20
These findings all starkly contradict common predictions that
shelter intakes and killing would soar due to the effects of two
years of national (and international) economic recession. The only
rises ANIMAL PEOPLE found were relatively small and local, and most
closely coincided with increases in human population.
The apparent steep drop in shelter killing also contradicts
the trend of the preceding ten years, which saw the combined toll of
dogs and cats hover stubbornly between four and five
million–although the rate of shelter killing per 1,000 Americans
dropped slightly in seven years out of 11.
ANIMAL PEOPLE has been disappointed before, notably in 2007,
when late-arriving whole-state survey data from Louisiana and Ohio
erased an apparent drop of shelter killing to 3.7 million. For that
reason, we subjected the 2010 findings to several tests not deemed
necessary in previous years.
The ANIMAL PEOPLE estimates each year are based on reports
from every shelter known to do more than incidental dog and cat
killing within a specific jurisdiction–a city, a county, a
multi-county metropolitan region, or a whole state. We include data
from the three preceding fiscal years. Each year new data is added,
and the oldest data is dropped. The data is regionally grouped and
proportionally weighted to ensure the most accurate possible
representation. The data used to produce each annual estimate tends
to come from jurisdictions including slightly more than half of the
total human population of the U.S.: 56% in 2010.
One possibility for the evident recent steep dip in shelter
killing might be that during the past year only the shelters with the
best records published and shared their statistics. Shelters with
weak records tend to be less well funded, and may have trimmed their
budgets during the economic crisis by dispensing with tracking and
publishing their numbers.
To test that possibility, ANIMAL PEOPLE went back to the
most recent reports from jurisdictions not included in our 2010 data
compilation, and hypothetically presumed that their numbers were
unchanged. If the 44% of U.S. jurisdictions not included this year
had continued to kill dogs and cats at their rates of five years ago
and longer, the current U.S. shelter killing toll might be as high
as 4.9 million–but among all the U.S. cities we have ever included,
the only upward trend over several years has been in Knoxville,
Other jurisdictions have seen occasional interruptions of
progress, but even those with the highest rates of shelter killing,
both a decade ago and now, have achieved substantial reductions.
Among the outstanding examples, in numbers of dogs and cats killed
per 1,000 residents, Mobile went from 70.0 in 1999 to 22.1 in 2009.
Tucson went from 45.2 to 25.3. San Antonio went from 31.8 to 19.6.
Albuquerque went from 35.7 to 23.8. The state of North Carolina went
from 35.0 to 21.7.
A possibility of greater concern than the risk of statistical
error is that tight budgets have caused animal care and control
agencies to become much less energetic about picking up stray dogs
and cats. In addition, economic stress has recently encouraged many
formerly open admission shelters to switch to a no-kill modus
operandi. Going no-kill tends to be more popular with donors, but
usually includes refusing to accept animals with poor adoption
prospects. Open admission shelters have alleged for years that
no-kill shelters are “turnaways,” whose admission policies may
result in less shelter killing but also contribute to animals being
abandoned at large.
If any of this is occurring to a significant extent, the
recent drop in shelter killing may be illusory. Instead of being
killed at animal shelters from lack of adoptive homes, several
million dogs and cats may have been dumped to fend for
themselves–and some of them may contribute to the growth of new
feral cat and street dog populations, where feral cats have been
markedly reduced in recent years and street dogs were long since
Yet, even if dog and cat abandonments have surged by 20%,
and even if those animals had been admitted to shelters and killed
instead, the present toll would not be greater than the average over
the past 10 years.
Sterilization makes difference
Real and substantial progress appears to have occurred,
driven in particular by multi-million-dollar commitments by the
American SPCA, Best Friends Animal Society, Maddie’s Fund, and
PetSmart Charities to funding low-cost and free cat and dog
sterilization. Visible progress has occurred in all parts of the
U.S., but the most dramatic gains funded by national organizations
have come in the South.
The Midwest, meanwhile, now appears to be killing slightly
fewer cats and dogs per 1,000 human residents than the Pacific
region, where decades of progress along the coast has left the
inland parts of the coastal states far behind. The Midwestern gains
appear to have been achieved largely through the leadership of
entrepreneurs including Paula Fasseas of Chicago and Scott and Ellen
Robinson of Indianapolis, who have shown for more than a decade in
either city that a successful high-volume dog and cat sterilization
program need not be developed by an existing agency, nor even by a
The same lesson was taught earlier by Mary Herro in Las
Vegas, beginning in 1998, and by Friends of Animals founder Alice
Herrington, who opened the first low-cost sterilization clinic in
the U.S. in 1957. The contributions of the late John Caltibiano,
DVM in Connecticut and the recently retired Marvin Mackey, DVM in
California have also showed the way. More recently, the Humane
Alliance of Asheville, North Carolina has expanded a successful
local cat and dog sterilization clinic into a nationally influential
Wherever shelter killing has markedly dropped, about 95% of
the progess can be attributed to low-cost and free high-volume cat
and dog sterilization–which both reduces the numbers of homeless
animals and, as free-to-good-home puppies and kittens vanish,
increases the opportunity for shelter animals to be adopted.
It is no mere coincidence that the majority of the cats and
dogs now killed in animal shelters come from the populations to which
the humane community has the least access: feral cats and pit bull
Even quantifying the numbers of feral cats entering shelters
is difficult, because the behavior of a frightened pet cat is often
not different from that of a feral cat. Shelter personnel commonly
guesstimate that about 70% of the cats they handle are feral. If
this is true, U.S. shelters are managing to adopt out about one
feral cat of each three they receive (mostly feral-born kittens),
and by implication, virtually all two million cats per year killed
in shelters are feral.
Neuter/return, where conscientiously practiced, is a
demonstrably successful approach to reducing and eventually
eliminating feral cat populations. But the rate of shelter intake of
feral cats continues to indicate that the U.S. has an enduringly
elusive reservoir of about six million reproducing ferals who survive
each winter, rising to more than 12 million each summer, for a
year-round average of about nine million. This feral population is
continually augmented and replenished by unsterilized free-roaming
pet cats and abandoned cats.
Existing neuter/return programs, effective as they are in
many places, are not reaching a substantial part of the reservoir
that sustains the feral cat population. Reasons why include lack of
funding; the inability of neuter/return activists to gain access to
everywhere that harbors feral cats; local resistance to having cats
returned to their neighborhoods, once trapped and removed; and
legal and political opposition to neuter/return from birders and
The introduction of neuter/return to the U.S. cut the numbers
of cats killed in U.S. shelters by as much as 75% in five years, but
over the past 13 years the net reduction in shelter killing of cats
has come to just 14%.
Another breakthrough seems necessary, be it a more efficient
way to catch feral cats for sterilization, a more persuasive
approach to winning over neuter/return opponents, or a less costly
method of sterilization, perhaps a chemosterilant that can be
injected in the field.
Pit bull terriers
The pit bull terrier situation could scarcely be more
different. Because the distinctive pit bull traits are maintained
only through deliberate line breeding, there is for all practical
purposes no such animal as an accidental pit bull. Though pit bulls
are commonly surrendered to shelters or impounded for “out of
control” behavior, virtually every pit bull is at least nominally
under human control from birth to death.
Conventional belief in the animal care and control field is
that the greater the element of human control over an animal, the
less problematic the animal will be.
Yet pit bulls are disproportionately involved in every major
issue that brings animals to shelters. Since 2005 pit bulls have
been the victims in 12% of U.S. neglect cases, 19% of cruelty cases,
and more than 700 cases involving dogfighting.
In that time pit bulls have also inflicted 113 of 233 attacks
by dogs on other animals (49%) that led to litigation or criminal
Since 1982 pit bulls have been involved in 1,705 of 2,927 dog
attacks on humans in the U.S. and Canada that killed or disfigured
someone (58%), including 748 of 1,500 attacks that killed or
disfigured a child (50%); 571 of 872 attacks that killed or
disfigured an adult (65%); 177 of 374 attacks that resulted in a
human death (47%); and 927 of 1,641 attacks that resulted in a
Historical research by Colleen Lynn of DogsBite.org has
established that these percentages have been relatively consistent
since 1944–though fatal and disfiguring dog attacks were so rare
until under 25 years ago that the percentages and breed identities of
the dogs involved mostly eluded notice.
Shelter admissions of random-bred accidental mutts have
fallen from more than 80% of total dog intake 25 years ago to less
than 25% today–but shelter admissions of pit bull terriers have
soared from under 1% of total dog intake to more than 25%. Shelter
killing of pit bulls rose from 5% of all dogs killed circa 1986 to
more than 50% of all dogs killed since 2001, peaked at 58% in
2008-2009 according to ANIMAL PEOPLE spot checks of shelter data,
and currently is about 55%, according to data collected in June 2010.
As of mid-June 2010, ANIMAL PEOPLE learned, pit bulls
occupied about 25% of U.S. animal shelter kennels, with Labrador
retrievers and mixes a distant second at 14%. Pit bulls occupied
about 33% of animal control shelter kennels, but only about 15% of
the kennels at shelters practicing selective admission, though the
sample included several no-kill shelters that specialize in placing
pit bulls. Except for those shelters, the others practicing
selective admission appeared to avoid adding pit bulls to their
inventory. Labrador retrievers and mixes showed the opposite
pattern: animal control shelters had 9% Labs, but selective
admission shelters had 17%.
In hard numbers, more than 825,000 pit bulls were killed in
U.S. shelters in 2008-2009, and more than 810,000 in 2009-2010–even
though more pit bulls were adopted out than any other breed type.
About two-thirds of shelter pit bull intake arrived via
owner surrender. Most of those who were killed flunked temperament
testing first. But passing temperament testing does not necessarily
ensure a safe dog.
Of the 37 people who were killed or maimed by U.S. shelter
dogs since 2000, 27 (73%) were killed or maimed by pit bulls.
If pit bulls constituted a disproportionately high
percentage of the total U.S. and Canadian dog population, such
numbers might merely reflect the popularity of the breed type.
To find out just how popular pit bulls and other dog breeds
are, ANIMAL PEOPLE recently crunched the numbers from 3.2 million
online and newspaper classified ads offering dogs for sale or
adoption within the U.S. Of the 140-odd breeds recognized by major
kennel clubs, only 16 constituted more than 1% of the dogs offered.
Labrador retrievers topped the list at 11.6%. Pit bulls and
close mixes, including all variants of American bull dog and
Staffordshire terrier, came in second, at 4.1%, with Chihuahuas
third at 2.4%. Huskies, at 2.1%, were the only other breed to
account for 2%-plus. This might seem surprising until one considers
that many of the people who keep huskies keep teams typically
consisting of 20-30 dogs.
4.1% of the U.S. dog population is about 2.9 million
–meaning that 28% of the total U.S. pit bull population was killed
in shelters last year, and upward of a third of the U.S. pit bull
population entered shelters, compared to about 10% of all other
dogs. The numbers imply a pit bull sterilization rate of under 25%,
compared with more than 75% of all other dogs.
Legislating pit bull sterilization would appear to be the
obvious solution. In July/August 2009 ANIMAL PEOPLE published a
table showing that three of the four major U.S. cities with the
lowest rates of pit bull killing–Denver, Miami, and San
Francisco–have breed-specific legislation to keep pit bulls from
proliferating to excess. Those numbers have not changed.
This year five cities on the ANIMAL PEOPLE regional charts
have breed-specific legislation either prohibiting pit bulls or
requiring pit bulls to be sterilized. They include San Francisco,
with the lowest rate of shelter killing of any North American city;
Toronto, with the lowest rate of shelter killing in Canada; Denver,
second only to Reno in the western region; Miami, with the second
lowest rate of shelter killing in Florida; and Kansas City, whose
numbers are close to the U.S. average.
San Francisco merely mandates that pit bulls must be
sterilized. Toronto is covered by Ontario provincial legislation,
which prohibits pit bulls except for those who are sterilized and
were in the province and licensed before the law passed. Denver
prohibits pit bulls altogether. The Miami ordinance is similar to
the Denver ordinance. The Kansas City ordinance is similar to the
San Francisco ordinance, but Kansas City has nowhere near the level
of animal control and humane society service of San Francisco.
Because the laws differ, and have been enforced for varying
lengths of time, comparing results can be complicated. But two
numbers are easily understood, and are of particular note: the San
Francisco ordinance has since 2005 achieved a 25% decline in pit bull
impoundment, and a 33% decline in the numbers of pit bulls who are
killed by animal control.
No major city without breed-specific legislation can claim
any significant drop in pit bull intakes and killing at all.