An empty shelter. No sad-eyed dogs or wary cats staring back. Can you even imagine it? Some shelters can—and the prospect produces both excitement and trepidation. Maybe the spay-neuter message Bob Barker once preached from The Price Is Right has finally sunk in, and the efforts of veterinary professionals working tirelessly to reduce the unwanted pet population have finally made an impact. But in places where there are more families looking for dogs to adopt than there are adoptable dogs available, what’s a dog-lover to do?
I went looking for the answer to the question of whether there's a shortage of adoptable dogs in the United States. What I found? Dog auctions. Amish breeders. Animal transporters. Retail rescuers. And reputable shelters and rescuers fighting their darndest to stay above the muck–and elevate the rest of the rescue world to their high standards and values.
If you’ve never heard of some of these groups, you’re not alone. Outside the world of sheltering, we have very little reason to think about where pets come from, beyond the shelter. It’s with great pride most pet owners answer the question, “Where did you get your dog?” with this response: “The shelter, of course!” It’s a badge of honor, one that the sheltering community worked long years to promote, along with the message of spaying and neutering and the incentives that make it nearly impossible for an animal that comes from a shelter to remain an intact, breeding animal.
If you live in Houston, the idea of a dog shortage is a punchline to a really terrible joke. Roll out a map of Houston in front of any animal rescuer who’s lived in the area and they can tell you, by zip code, where to find the highest population of strays.
If you live in Colorado or in certain parts of the Northwest, you’ve seen the dogs (and sometimes cats too!) leaving the shelter mere hours after the transport van arrives to drop them off from southern climes. And not just puppies and kittens. Older animals. Animals with special needs.
“It’s great that we’re finding great homes for dogs that we wouldn’t even consider putting up for adoption 10 or 15 years ago. People are adopting animals with arthritis or animals that are 8 or 9 or 10 years old,” says Apryl Steele, DVM, president and CEO of the Dumb Friends League in Denver. “We’re really having some successes with animals that deserve great homes, and they’re getting second chances that they wouldn’t before. We’re also able to bring animals in from communities that aren’t as lucky as we are and haven’t gotten to this point, and there’s good and bad with that.”
“We joke that a puppy used to be anything under 6 months, and now it’s anything under 6 years. Anything under 6 years is highly adoptable in our community, and even the older dogs are getting homes.” —Apryl Steele, DVM, president and CEO of Dumb Friends League
For example, Dr. Steele notes that many of the transported animals in Colorado shelters come from the Gulf states—Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as New Mexico and Oklahoma.
The upside: “You’re helping an animal that was going to be euthanized. Some of these communities have live release rates under 35 or 40 percent, which means a vast majority of the animals that come to them, whether they’re puppies or healthy, are being euthanized.”
The challenge with transporting adoptable animals? They come from heartworm-endemic areas to an area that was previously nonendemic, which can risk the native populations.
“You have to be willing to test every animal before you bring them up, put them on heartworm prevention, if the animal tests positive treat them according to American Heartworm Society guidelines—not just give them heartworm prevention and say you’ve treated them,” Dr. Steele says. It’s this area, she says, where things can go hinky. It’s expensive to do it right, she says, and it’s part of the obligation of transferring an animal to your community. And the risks go beyond heartworm—you can also transfer conditions that include parvovirus, distemper and eyeworm infections, so it’s important to be mindful.
Another concern is the dog’s behavior. You don’t want to introduce aggressive dogs into your community, Dr. Steele says. Which broaches the oh-so-difficult-to-answer question: What qualifications do pets need to meet to be considered adoptable?
Our experts agree that the definition varies by the organization. Most definitions go something like this: A dog may be unadoptable if 1) the pet has a physical condition that causes it to suffer that can’t be corrected by a veterinarian or 2) the animal shows significant aggression toward other animals or people.
Another important consideration: As you’re moving a pet from its source community, Dr. Steele says shelters must consider what they’re doing to reinvest back into the source community, whether it’s humane education or spay and neuter or something else that makes a long-term difference. The goal, she says, is to reduce the pet population and become irrelevant to the transfer partners, and then move on to another transport partner in another community.
“When you transfer animals, if you don’t do anything in that source community, then you’re just taking that animal away without having any impact on changing the problem, and when you’re not there that community just ends up euthanizing the majority of their animals.”
In the end, Dr. Steele urges caution in jumping to any conclusions about animal shortages. "It is very important to remember that even in areas like Colorado the problem of homeless pets is not resolved—80 percent of the 20,000 animals we receive annually are from people in our very own community who cannot provide for the pet anymore," she says. "It is only because of the incredible adoption demand that we are able to meet the need in our community and then transfer from others."
Meet the transporter
So how exactly do those adoptable animals down south make their way to new homes in the north? The short answer: transporters. There are basically several types of transporters. In-town transporters bring pets to local adoption events—think PetSmart adoption events, for example.
Dr. Steele says animal welfare organizations transport a large number of dogs. These groups, including the ASPCA, have well-funded professionals who transport animals between independent animal welfare organizations.
Next are the chain transports. These work for cases where there’s a dog in Florida that needs to get to California. Transport coordinators connect volunteer drivers to commit to smaller drives of about 100 miles to move the dog across the country. Paid transporters receive financial compensation to drive dogs across the country, and volunteer transporters deliver pets to shelters and rescue groups in different parts of the country on their own time and dime.
“We can’t adopt our way out of this overpopulation crisis.” Tim Hebert, volunteer animal transporter
Tim Hebert is a volunteer transporter, a self-described Cajun and a recovering CPA from Lafayette, Louisiana. As we talk the 74-year-old retiree is blazing down the highway at 70 miles per hour with roughly 30 cats in the back of his truck—an animal control van Hebert purchased himself. He’ll eat and sleep in this truck for the next four days. This relentless driving is with a purpose—he’s moving these homeless cats from Louisiana to the northeast. Two kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia and a third handicapped kitty are destined for a special rescue group in Massachusetts that works with these cats, and 27 others will go to a shelter in New Hampshire.
While Hebert transports dogs and cats, he confides he often opts to transport the kitties because cats are the underdogs of the rescue world.
Hebert has been on the Friends of BARC board for 10 years now, and currently serves as treasurer. The nonprofit group was founded in 2003 to support BARC, the City of Houston Animal Shelter, an open intake shelter. What’s that? Simply put, they must take every animal that comes to them.
When Hebert first started volunteering with Friends of BARC, he says he was always being introduced to people who needed to move a dog from here to there or there to here. He was always trying to borrow an SUV or rent a trailer or truck. On a tip from a friend, he started following an online auction in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the city was auctioning off an animal control officer’s van. Before he knew it, he’d won the auction. So he flew north to collect the van and drove it home from Nebraska back down to Louisiana.
For the first few years, Hebert simply used the van to transport animals around the city to off-site adoption locations. When he hit 310,000 miles on the first van, he handed it off to a rescue group in Louisiana that uses it for local runs and bought a new animal transport van for the long-haul trips he does now. In 2017, Hebert drove 76,600 miles and delivered 340 dogs and 773 cats to safe places.
When I ask him why he thinks the south has such an overpopulation problem, he answers bluntly. “Well, there’s two reasons. Mainly people down here are shit. They just don’t take care of their animals like they ought to. And I’m sorry, I’m from here so I can say that. And Houston is terrible too,” he says. “And on top of that the other big reason is down here it’s year-round breeding season.”
Jason Leavitt is vice president of Friends of BARC and, for transparency, he’s been my husband’s best friend since high school. He and his wife, Betsy Vitek, have volunteered for BARC for about 12 years. Leavitt says BARC’s conservative estimates put the number of strays on the streets of Houston at between 800,000 and 1.2 million—a number that’s been hotly contested in the opinion pages of the Houston Chronicle. He also points to climate and cultural differences as some of the causes of Houston’s animal control challenges.
A local group, the Recued Pets Movement, has transported more than 25,000 animals to Colorado, but still the glut of pets haunts the streets and shelters of Houston.
“There are times you just want to cry your eyes out, because a really special animal got put down through no fault of their own—simply by being born,” Leavitt says. “There are times when you absolutely want to slap the ever-loving shit out of people for being so crude, irresponsible, careless … I tell a lot of people, volunteer at BARC and it won’t take you long to learn to hate people. They come up with the most awful reasons to return or turn in animals.
“Then there are times when you meet some wonderful people and help them adopt wonderful animals. Wonderful people who don’t care if an animal has scars or health issues or is missing a leg or is blind. That helps re-energize you and make you want to keep going through the best of times and the worst of times.”
Why rescuers need more support
Carol Thompson, PhD, is a professor of sociology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, and an animal rescuer who teaches in the Human-Animal Relationships Program at TCU. She says she wears different masks as a professor versus as an animal rescuer.
Compassion fatigue and burnout are common themes Thompson sees in people who work with animals, which, in turn, is sometimes expressed as personality issues.
“One is lack of patience. ‘I don’t have time for this. I’ve got 20 animals that need to be fed tonight before I go to bed. I don’t have time for chitchat. Tell me the bottom line.’ Some people look gruff, because their plate is so very full. And their coffers are so very empty and they’ve seen the worst of about 20 people today. So it’s not uncommon for anyone in rescue to have been attacked by a member of the public, and I think this is true for vet techs and vets as well.
“So we say they don’t like people, but that’s sort of something that becomes true perhaps.”
It’s a challenge Thompson says she can identify with, in her dual roles as professor and animal rescuer. She says she considers herself to be a very people-oriented person, and she’s been in rescue a long time, which she says makes her skeptical and can give her negative feelings about people.
“I’m a professor. And it’s funny, because when I’m doing rescue work I have a very different mask, like a very different self than when I’m in the classroom. It’s sort of like, I love everybody and I’m suspicious of everybody. You get whiplash, identity whiplash in some sense,” Thompson says.
Even as Hebert shuttles the cats north, veterinarians at animal welfare organizations and shelters are waiting for the next shipments of adoptable pets. Erin Doyle, DVM, DABVP (shelter medicine practice), is a senior veterinarian focused on shelter and forensic medicine at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. In Dr. Doyle’s area, transports supply a good number of the adoptable pets in the shelters.
“A lot of the dogs that are surrendered to the shelters do come with different preexisting medical and behavioral challenges. While we are able to place many of those dogs, sometimes they need a more selective home that they’re going to,” says Dr. Doyle. “What we find that we’ve got a shortage of are dogs that don’t come with special needs medically or behaviorally. And puppies.”
An emerging trend noted by Drs. Doyle and Steele is the increasing need for cats. And spay and neuter education and efforts may garner at least partial credit for the feline shortfall.
“As long as I’ve been practicing here, the dog population has always been a little better off, in that there’s less overpopulation. It’s the cats that I’ve really seen an even more dramatic change in recent years,” Dr. Doyle says. “And I think that one surmises that probably spay and neuter has a strong impact. But I don’t think that there’s a lot of science that says for certain.”
When asked if she’s seeing any shortage in cats in Denver, Dr. Steele says yes. “This is our success. We’ve been trying to get people to spay and neuter cats for decades in the public, and we are finally seeing a decline in cats,” she says. “And we’ve actually been transferring cats in from other states this year—and a little bit last year—so this is a newer phenomenon.”
So is there really a dog (and cat) shortage? Sort of. But not really. It’s really more about apportioning the pets across the United States, of finding the communities that have moved further down the path of valuing pets and implementing effective spay and neuter programs and educating and supporting shelters and rescue groups in areas that need help down the path.
Most of the experts we spoke to across the United States agreed that if you’re looking for a Chihuahua or pit bull, you won’t need to look far. Other breeds can be harder to find.
“I think there may be some regional or local differences in the types of animals that are available in a shelter,” says Jed Rogers, DVM. Dr. Rogers is CEO at Firehouse Animal Health Centers in Austin, Texas, and he previously served as senior vice president of animal health services for the ASPCA. “The community that are surrendering the dogs may have a breed preference, and that’s reflected in the shelter when it comes to relinquishment. But I think there’s a pretty broad spectrum of pets that you see in the shelter.”
For the shelters that are seeing lower numbers of relinquished pets, what’s next? Check out “For the love of dog: The future of animal sheltering” to read about how some shelters are rewriting their goals in their communities, including offering new services and building new strategic relationships with other groups to promote healthier relationships between people and pets.
Editor’s note: The ASPCA declined to be interviewed for this article. The Humane Society of the United States did not respond to interview requests.