When looking at the makeup of American families today, it’s rare to see a home where a pet isn’t part of the family. According to the most recent data from the APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 67% of households—or around 85 million homes—own a pet. Of these households, dogs and cats top the list of most popular pets, with 63 million and 43 million households owning dogs and cats, respectively.
In exploring the history of animal shelters and rescue organizations in the country, nothing proves as problematic as the lack of a centralized reporting system to collect data on these organizations. Most of the shelter statistics that are available and accepted today are estimates based on several period surveys, including the aforementioned APPA National Pet Owners Survey along with the AVMA U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook. Without a nationally codified and streamlined process for collecting, organizing, and reporting on shelter data, there has been a grave lack of transparency around the country’s shelters. That makes it difficult not only to pinpoint accurate statistics regarding sheltered animals in America but also to understand the true state of animal welfare in the country, which is the first step to improving that welfare.
Luckily, there has been an increasingly concerted effort by animal welfare organizations and animal shelters across the country to change the lack of comprehensive and reliable data available regarding U.S. animal shelters. Besides more and more shelters voluntarily providing data through self-reporting, there has been a rise in organizations aiming to boost data transparency in the industry. One organization—Shelter Animals Count—is working to bridge the gap by creating a national database of shelter information. Another organization—Best Friends Animal Society—is working hard to get laws passed throughout the country that would require a new level of shelter transparency.
To dive deeper into the history and current state of animal shelters in America, Stacker sorted through news articles, data reports, and many studies to compile a collection of key data points and statistics about both shelter animals and the organizations that house them. Keep reading to learn about the state of animal shelters and rescue organizations in the U.S. today.
You may also like: Luxurious spas just for your dog
Despite the value that comprehensive data could provide in improving shelter operations and transparency, there’s an overwhelming lack of information due to the absence of a centralized reporting system for shelters. Only about 20% of states require shelters to report any kind of annual data at all, which is part of the reason there has been such a lack of readily available reliable information thus far.
Data collected by Shelter Animals Count from 2,754 participating shelters and rescue organizations reported that there were 2,775,794 cats and dogs that entered shelters in 2019 (at least through September of that year). Of that number, about 50% were cats and 50% were dogs.
Many animals end up in shelters because of homelessness or situations of animal cruelty, but many pets are also surrendered to shelters by their owners. Based on data collected by Petfinder, some primary reasons for owner surrender of dogs include moving (7%), landlord disputes (6%), and unmanageable costs (5%). For owner surrender of cats, the leading reasons include too many pets in the house (11%), allergies (8%), and moving (8%).
The costs of operating an animal shelter aren’t cheap. One shelter reported that the cost of basic animal supplies—including food, bowls, and collars—totaled a whopping $35,000. Another shelter reported that the initial costs alone of dealing with a surrendered animal—including intake exams, vaccines, and neutering—can be around $200–$250. To help subsidize those costs, shelters often charge a surrender fee when owners leave their pets with them. Those fees can range from $25 to upwards of $150.
While many animals end up at shelters after being relinquished by their owners, twice as many animals still come into shelters as strays rather than house pets that owners willingly surrendered. Based on the available figures, it’s estimated that there are around 70 million stray cats and dogs throughout the U.S.
You may also like: Can you answer these real 'Jeopardy!' questions about cats?
Of the animals that end up at shelters because of getting lost or straying from their homes, a small percentage actually makes it back to their family. Data from the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) has revealed that between 15 and 20% of dogs—and less than 2% of cats—that enter shelters as strays are ever reunited with their owners.
A commonly cited statistic states that shelters comprise 25% purebred dogs. A recent survey by the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA), however, revealed that this widely accepted estimate is actually far higher than the true percentage of purebred dogs in shelters, which is closer to 5%.
Of all the dogs that end up in shelters, pit bulls are the most represented breed by far. Because of common misconceptions that pit bulls are innately aggressive and cannot be behaviourally trained, these dogs’ chances of adoption are relatively low. According to data available, they estimate that only one in every 600 pit bulls in shelters will find a home and that 93% of shelter pit bulls will be euthanized, with around 75% of government-operated shelters euthanizing these dogs upon intake.
Although pet adoption is a commitment and requires several considerations before it should be undertaken, research shows that selecting a dog once you’re ready to adopt may be a pretty quick one. A study by the Journal of the International Society for Applied Ethology found that potential adopters decide whether to adopt a dog within about eight minutes of interacting with them.
There is a common misconception that adopting an animal from a shelter means having to opt for an older animal. However, the average age of dogs given up to shelters is actually between five months and two years old, according to a report from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
You may also like: Common household pets that live the longest
While most data available on animal shelters pertains to cats and dogs, shelters and rescue organizations may be home to a wealth of other animals. Just some of the additional animals that may be adopted from a shelter include birds, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, water turtles, snakes, iguanas, and even horses.
While Easter often coincides with a spike in rabbit sales and adoptions, shelters often report a subsequent spike in rabbit surrender several weeks after the holiday. One shelter in Georgia reports that usually calls concerning rabbit abandonment average one or two a week, however, those calls can go up to four a day in the two months after Easter. Besides impulse bunny purchases around the holidays, rabbit surrender may be linked to common misconceptions about their lifespan (they can live up to 12 years) and ease of care (rabbits can be pretty high maintenance).
One of the biggest challenges that animal shelters and rescue organizations face is the growing number of animals in need of shelter. Because of the high numbers of unspayed cats and dogs in the U.S., there is a growing population of unwanted or accidental puppies and kittens throughout the country that are homeless or surrendered by their owners. In a seven-year time span, a single unspayed cat and its offspring can produce over 400,000 kittens, while an unspayed dog and its offspring can produce close to 100,000 puppies.
Today, shelters that turn to euthanasia to curb overpopulation use injection as the method of choice. However, that wasn’t always the case. Some shelters used to rely on drowning or gassing animals to death to control their populations and avoid shelter overflow.
Available data suggests that around 56% of dogs and 71% of cats that end up in shelters around the U.S. are ultimately euthanized. Some of the biggest factors of high euthanization rates include shelter overpopulation and open admission policies at a lot of government-operated shelters that make it so that all animals—even those with a low likelihood of being adopted because of health and behavioral issues—have to be taken in. However, data collected from 21 shelters across the country found that most have seen a significant decline in euthanasia rates between 2012 and 2018. This is due to a myriad of efforts intended to curb overpopulation and a rising trend in pet adoption.
You may also like: 10 Guinness World Records about dogs
A no-kill movement in animal sheltering began in 1984 with the Best Friends Animal Society as its flagship. In the year of the organization’s inception, an estimated 17 million animals were being euthanized annually throughout America’s shelters. Today, the organization is working towards achieving a goal of making the entire country no-kill by 2025.
One of the ongoing causes of shelter overpopulation in the U.S. is the high number of unspayed pets and strays throughout the country. To reduce animal overpopulation, many shelters offer low-cost—and, sometimes, even free—spay and neuter programs. Whether it’s through in-house clinics or partnerships with vets, shelters are working to address overpopulation at the source.
Another method of easing the effects of shelter overpopulation and reducing euthanization rates throughout the country is through shelter animal relocation. In 2018, the ASPCA relocated 40,314 animals from overcrowded shelters with low adoption demand (primarily states in the southeastern U.S.) to states in the Northeast where chances of adoption are higher.
In 2016, about 23% of dogs and 31% of cats were adopted from shelters. Data available on the acquisition of pets in the U.S. demonstrates that adoption from shelters is gradually outranking other methods of acquisition, including breeding the pet at home or receiving it as a gift. Even as these numbers rise, though, over one third of dogs are still obtained through breeders.
Despite the difficulty in reporting and collecting accurate, streamlined information about animal shelters and rescue organizations throughout the U.S., one organization—Shelter Animals Count—is making strides in increasing shelter transparency and creating a national database of self-reported data. The organization’s 2018 annual report pulled from a total of 32,365 data records created by 5,411 participating organizations throughout the country.
You may also like: Least obedient dog breeds
Many shelters and rescue organizations offer a range of educational programs and seminars for children and adults to help increase knowledge on pet adoption and care. For example, the Animal Humane Society arranges interactive classroom programs to help teach children about animal welfare. The organization Animal Education and Rescue is also known for offering programs focused on everything from understanding dog’s body language to preventing dog bites.
For those looking to add a pet to their families, adopting from a shelter or a rescue organization can be one of the cheapest options. Typically, adopting a pet can be free or cost up to $250, which is significantly less than the thousands it might cost to buy dogs of certain breeds.
With 1,182 recorded shelters in the state, California surpasses all others in its total number of known or recorded animal shelters. That said, Wyoming comes in the #1 spot when considering shelters per capita. (While California’s population relative to its shelters puts it at three shelters per 100,000 people, Wyoming has 6.1 shelters per every 100,000 residents.) Unfortunately, the high number of shelters in California also coincides with the second highest euthanization rate in the country, as reported by the Best Friends Animal Society.
To help spread the word about adoptable shelter pets, the non-profit organization Do Something organized a campaign by which participants can sign up to provide shelter-pet publicity. The campaign encourages shelter pet “PR reps” to act as animals’ publicists and share their photos to help them find a home.
Each year on April 30, National Adopt a Shelter Pet Day helps raise awareness of the countless pets awaiting adoption in the country’s over 5,000 animal shelters and rescue organizations. Though the holiday serves to encourage adoption of an animal in need, it also advocates for shelter assistance in other forms for those who can’t adopt, including volunteering or providing donations.
You may also like: 30 ways humans have shaped dogs' evolutionary history