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American Humane Association investigates why people don't own pets


Surprising barriers include lasting grief over loss of a previous pet--and a frank dislike of cats.

There were the responses they expected--“pets cost too much money,” “I don’t have time,” “I’m allergic to cats”--but it was the unexpected answers concerning pet ownership that the American Humane Association found interesting in its three-part “Keeping Pets (Dogs and Cats) in Homes Retention Study.” Nearly 20 percent of prior pet owners surveyed said they didn’t acquire a new dog or cat because they were still grieving the loss of a previous pet.

American Humane has launched the study as part of its efforts to reduce the number of adoptable pets euthanized each year in shelters across the country by better understanding pet ownership--or lack thereof. Performed by the association’s Animal Welfare Research Institute, the first phase of the study aimed to uncover people’s motivations for owning (or not owning) a dog or cat and for keeping pets in the home (or relinquishing them), with the goal of increasing both ownership and retention. Phase I, “Reasons for Not Owning a Dog or Cat,” was released Aug. 8.

Researchers interviewed 1,500 non-pet owners and previous pet owners via an online survey administered in February 2012. The results confirmed significant barriers to ownership, including costs and a perceived lack of time, but also acknowledged that lasting grief over the loss of a pet is a real deterrent.

“Clearly, the human-animal bond in strong and our profession needs to help owners celebrate a prior pet--allowing them to take the next step to future ownership,” says Patricia Olson, DVM, chief veterinary advisor for the American Humane Association. She hopes veterinarians can discuss the benefits of owning another animal with those clients when the time is right.

While love for a previous pet was a deterrent to future ownership for some, the opposite was true for others. Some respondents cited a frank dislike of companion animals--especially cats, as more than a third of respondents said they simply disliked them. Among previous dog owners, 45 percent would consider obtaining another pet, while only 34 percent of previous cat owners would. Of those who had never owned a dog or cat, 25 percent said they would “probably or definitely” consider a dog, while only 10 percent would consider a cat.

“We need to consider new strategies for cats,” Olson says. “Younger people are interested in cat ownership.” In fact, the data shows that a single person between the age of 18 and 34 is most likely to consider owning a cat.

Despite this apparently feeble interest in cat ownership, other research shows that cats are still the most popular pets. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2012 U.S. Pet Demographic Study, at the end of 2011 Americans owned 74.1 million cats, compared with 69.9 million dogs. And a 2011 CATalyst Council study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association shed some light on cat ownership. The study identified the need for “cat-friendly” education and training for both pet owners and veterinary staff to increase care for cats.

“Even with all the talk and resources, informing veterinary practices is still needed,” says Jane Brunt, DVM, CATalyst’s executive director, in regard to the often difficult perception of cats. The CATalyst study suggests that as more veterinary practices adopt cat-friendly strategies, a more positive response will be gained from pet owners. This, ideally, will result in better pet retention, increased preventive care and more cat adoptions--which the American Humane Association hopes will come from rescue organizations or shelters.

In the American Humane study, only 22 percent of dogs and 18 percent of cats were obtained by previous pet owners through a shelter or rescue organization. However, around half of both previous pet owners and non-pet owners would “most likely” obtain their next pet from a shelter or rescue organization. Yet, dogs were more likely to be considered as future pets than cats. The study also revealed that the longer a previous owner went without owning a new pet, the less likely he or she was to want one, and older respondents were less likely than younger to want to own another pet.

A significant percentage of respondents (53 percent of previous dog owners and 49 percent previous of cat owners) said their last pet had lived in the household for more than 10 years. Only 10 percent of previous dog owners and 12 percent of previous cat owners reported that the pet had been given away or sold to a friend or family member. The leading reason for placing a pet elsewhere was that the pet was not allowed at their place of residence (29 percent and 21 percent for dogs and cats, respectively), followed by allergies (2 percent/11 percent), behavior issues (10 percent/8 percent), time (10 percent/3 percent) and death or divorce (10 percent/8 percent).

According to the study results, a person most likely to consider obtaining a dog is someone who’s single, younger and living in the Western United States and who has owned a dog within the past five years. The most likely person to obtain a cat is a young single who lives alone with an income of $50,000 to $74,999 and has owned a cat less than five years ago or for two years or longer. Non-pet owners who owned a dog or other pet as a child are more likely to consider obtaining a dog; however, those who owned a cat as a child are less likely to want a dog or a cat as an adult.

The researchers concluded that to encourage future pet owners and lower barriers to ownership, pet advocates need to address negative attitudes toward cats, support younger future cat owners, understand grief as a barrier to new pet ownership and provide support for those adopting from shelters and rescue agencies and those with housing restrictions or financial limitations.

“The veterinary profession is concerned about reported decreases in dog and cat ownership in the U.S.,” Olson says. “With American Humane Association’s research, we are addressing barriers to pet ownership and reasons for pet relinquishment. Pets need good homes and we want them to have good homes forever. Both pieces are incredibly important to the veterinary profession.”

Phase II of the study, expected in January 2013, will examine retention of dogs and cats acquired from shelters and animal control agencies, along with what happened to pets that are no longer in their adopted homes. Phase III will test practical interventional strategies for improving pet retention rates.

To view complete results from Phase I of the study, go to www.americanhumane.org.

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