Blog: So where do things stand with dog populations in the U.S.?

Crackdowns on breeding, success with shelter neutering--while good things--could leave future veterinary clients without a source for pet dogs.
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Mar 26, 2014

It’s been six months since the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented rules to bring Internet breeders within the scope of its animal welfare standards governing dog breeders. This is the latest initiative by federal and state governments to clamp down on puppy mills. We have also seen more cities join the growing roster of jurisdictions banning the retail sale of dogs.

We also know that euthanasia rates in shelters continue to decline across the country, reflecting the dramatic success of a broad grassroots initiative in every region to expand the number of spays and neuters performed on shelter dogs. It is the rare shelter that is not addressing this issue in some manner. Is the job finished? No, but everyone in the animal welfare world should celebrate the significant gains to date.

What we don’t know, unfortunately, is where we stand with imports of dogs into the United States. Is it a tiny number, or are reports accurate that there may be hundreds of thousands of dogs coming into the country from unknown sources (and conditions) that have never been inspected?

Another statistic we simply don’t know is the total number of dogs—both those owned as pets and those in shelters or on the streets—at any given time in the United States. The decennial U.S. census tells us how many people live in our country, but we have nothing approaching this accuracy in telling us how many dogs call America home. Lacking birth and death records for our pets, we are left to speculate on these numbers. We often read that we have 162 million dogs and cats in the United States, but how confident are we really that these numbers are accurate or comprehensive?

What’s the concern? It’s simple. If (1) we don’t have real data on our total dog population, (2) we are reducing the volume of dogs produced by breeders through various legislative means mentioned above, (3) euthanasia rates are dropping, thankfully, and (4) we lack reliable data on the number of dogs imported into the United States each year, then how do industry, the veterinary profession and animal welfare advocates have any certainty that we have responsible programs in place to ensure an adequate supply of healthy dogs for an American human population expected to grow from 310 million to 420 million in the next 40 to 50 years?

We may be talking about demand for an additional 50 million dogs in the United States over this period. But this is a question people are afraid to ask because it triggers debate or anxiety about puppy mills and large-scale breeding. That’s not the point.

In a $70 billion industry, with growing research about the value of the human-animal bond, wouldn’t it be prudent to develop a broad initiative to create reliable data about our pets, particularly dogs, perhaps housed at an academic center like a veterinary college? Until this happens, we won’t know where we stand with the sourcing of dogs for future American families. How is this uncertainty, or ignorance, in the best interest of anyone, including our pets?

Mark Cushing, JD, is founding partner of the Animal Policy Group, providing government relations and strategic services for various animal health, veterinary and educational interests. He maintains offices in Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., and is a frequent speaker at veterinary conferences.

The Veterinary Policy Notes blog on dvm360.com helps veterinarians and other animal health professionals keep abreast of the growing number of issues, political challenges and regulatory initiatives affecting the veterinary profession, animal health industry and animal welfare movement.