Sheltered: Pet relinquishment, adoption problem remains healthy in the United States


National Report - While many veterinarians shun convenience euthanasia, problems associated with pet relinquishment live on.

NATIONAL REPORT — While many veterinarians shun convenience euthanasia, problems associated with pet relinquishment live on.

If a practitioner denies a convenience euthanasia, the owner typically moves to the next practice or the shelter down the street.

Trying to quantify the extent of the problem is another matter altogether.

A veterinarian administers sodium pentobarbital to Lexie, a 7-year-old mixed breed, as a worker for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals holds her at an animal shelter in Norfolk, Va. (Dec. 16, 1998). Her owners could no longer care for her.

Julie Dinnage, DVM, director of animal protection medicine with the MSPCA-Angell in Boston, says that the lack of population estimates is an issue, yet states requiring shelter registration and pilot studies are eyeing solutions for the future.

"We don't even know how many shelters there are in this country," she says. Current estimates have 6,000 animal shelters adopting out more than 40 percent of intakes, according to past surveys from the National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy (NCPPSP), yet shelters still are believed to euthanize 4-6 million animals a year, not all of which were surrendered pets.

Some high-intake shelters can admit as many as 30,000 animals in a year. Burnout and compassion fatigue are two realities of working in this environment. The burnout toll on shelter staff presents after just one to two years.

NCPPSP concurs there aren't true national statistics to accurately gauge the level of the problem. Nonetheless, NCPPSP conducted a survey from 1994 to 1997 to help quantify shelter intakes and euthanasias. According to the survey, which included reports from about 1,000 shelters each year, about 25 percent of dogs were adopted, 16 percent were returned to the owner and 56 percent were eventually euthanized. The other 3 percent were categorized as other or unknown. Similar adoption statistics held true for cats, but close to 71 percent were eventually euthanized.

"It is terribly sad. Certainly with cats, even though we may not be euthanizing as many puppies in New England, we are euthanizing kittens, because we have a large population of free-roaming cats."

All eyes are on Virginia to either claim victory or retool campaigns in this war against pet overpopulation. The state is compiling data from shelters. In 2005, Virginia shelters alone euthanized 67,180 cats along with 48,646 dogs. Adoptions included 32,063 cats and 37,813 dogs.

Shelters, however, are extremely diverse and largely dependent upon the organization's mission and charter. From large intakes, to limited admissions, to no-kill, to sanctuaries; shelters are as diverse as the reasons for relinquishment in the first place.

Dinnage, president of the 500-strong Association of Shelter Veterinarians, says, the work can be both rewarding and overwhelming.

"You have to focus on the small victories," Dinnage says.

Shelter medicine however goes way beyond upper respiratory illness and moves into population medicine. "We are servicing an entire community, and we are concerned about those same health issues."

With tight budgets and even tighter staffs, "there is more work to be done than there are hands." Yet, still it is a rewarding career path, she adds. "From a medical standpoint, you can see some pretty interesting things.

"It gave me the opportunity to be a spokesperson and caretaker for animals who don't have anyone else to speak for them."

Top 10 reasons for relinquishment


1. Moving

2. Landlord issues

3. Cost of pet maintenance

4. No time for pet

5. Inadequate facilities

6. Too many pets in home

7. Pet illness

8. Personal problems

9. Biting

10. No homes for littermates


1. Too many in house

2. Allergies

3. Moving

4. Cost of pet maintenance

5. Landlord issues

6. No homes for littermates

7. House soiling

8. Personal problems

9. Inadequate facilities

10. Doesn't get along with other pets

Source: National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy

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