Leading Off: Are you doing all you can to reduce euthanasia of healthy, adoptable pets?
Veterinarians have an obligation to protect the health of all animals.
Americans love their pets. In 2006, they spent more than $38 billion on food, collars, toys, and other pet-related products and services.1 About one-quarter of this expenditure went to veterinary care.1 Yet, there is a darker side to Americans' relationship to their pets. More than six million dogs and cats enter the nation's shelters annually, and well over half of them are euthanized because of insufficient homes.2 In a country where most dogs and cats are considered family members, why does this happen? What is the role of veterinarians in addressing this tragedy?
Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, PhD, is a professor of epidemiology and the director of Maddie's Shelter Medicine program at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Some veterinarians think that the animals entering shelters are not their patients. But in a national study of people relinquishing dogs and cats to animal shelters in four regions of the country, 70% of those relinquishing a dog and 50% of those relinquishing a cat reported having taken their pets to a veterinarian in the year preceding the surrender.3 When these owners were asked about the two-year period preceding relinquishment, these percentages were even higher. In light of the reasons for surrendering dogs and cats to animal shelters described in this special report, veterinary visits represent an opportunity—in some cases, the last opportunity—for owners to get assistance with the factors that lead them to relinquishment.
Over the past 15 years, numerous studies have shed light on the reasons for the large numbers of animals entering shelters. As expected, the reasons are varied, including excessive pet reproduction, objectionable pet behaviors, and inappropriate expectations. Veterinarians, imbued with Aesculapian authority and having frequent contact with pet owners, can address many of these issues without leaving their practices. They have the knowledge, skills, and influence to help pet owners prevent or treat many of the problems leading to relinquishment.
Despite the important role veterinarians play in reducing shelter impoundments through spay and neuter efforts, there is room for improvement. Surveys of pet owners reveal that while neuter rates among owned pets exceed 80% to 85% in most communities, 15% to 20% of owners report that their female dogs and cats had unplanned litters before being sterilized. So efforts to neuter pets before their first heat are needed among client-owned animals. Moreover, indoor-outdoor pets, free-roaming cats, and pets in low-income households remain largely unneutered. These underserved populations require programs with veterinary participation that reduce their reproduction potential.
Nowhere in the veterinary oath are veterinarians restricted to caring only for client-owned animals. Veterinarians have an obligation to protect the health of all animals. Participating in community outreach programs—such as high-quality, high-volume spay and neuter services for low-income residents; feral cat initiatives; and local shelter assistance—would improve the welfare of all companion animals in American communities.
The recommendations in the following pages have already been adopted by many veterinary clinics. These suggestions are not exhaustive. They are a starting place to prompt veterinarians to think how they might extend their efforts to reduce pet reproduction and abandonment. Estimates suggest that veterinarians lose over a billion dollars annually when their clients relinquish pets to shelters. Besides this economic incentive, veterinarians have an ethical obligation to reduce the killing of millions of dogs and cats. Working with other veterinarians and humane groups, together we can stop the needless euthanasia of our companion animals.
1. American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Statistics & trends. Available at: http://www.appma.org/press_industrytrends.asp. Accessed October 2, 2007.
2. The Humane Society of the United States. Common questions about animal shelters and animal control. Available at: http://www.hsus.org/pets/animal_shelters/common_questions_about_animal_shelters_and_animal_control.html. Accessed Oct 2, 2007.
3. Salman MD, New JG Jr., Scarlett JM, et al. Human and animal factors related to the relinquishment of dogs and cats in 12 selected animal shelters in the United States. J Appl Anim Welf Sci 1998;1(3):207-226.