"When we started Petfinder.com 15 years ago, the average person would have said we don't have an overpopulation problem, and now the general population says yes," says Betsy Saul, co-founder of the pet adoption Web site Petfinder.com. “On the other hand, people in the know used to say yes, there’s an overpopulation problem; now people in the know say no.”
The problem lies in supply and demand, and it’s directly related to the economy, says Saul. Economic strain on pet owners leading to less donations and adoptions results in what Saul calls an “overburden” problem rather than an overpopulation problem.
“It’s really a socioeconomic issue, I think. A lot has to do with where people’s hearts and minds are,” Saul says. “It’s a luxury to have the time and money to stop and think of animals. And it’s a marketing problem. Puppies are in the wrong spots.”
Saul says more affluent areas of the country have smaller selection of unwanted pets, and more pet seekers log on to Petfinder.com in affluent areas, while more pets are adopted from less affluent areas.
But not everyone is on board with Saul’s philosophy.
“I get distressed when I hear people saying there’s no overpopulation here … Tell that to the dogs that are still dying in shelters; that they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Dr. Lila Miller, vice-president of veterinary outreach and veterinary adviser for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals. “Numbers have gone down dramatically, but we’re still killing adoptable animals.”
It’s difficult to quantify the problem, since shelters aren’t required to keep statistics, adds Miller, who also is past president of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, a member of the National Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, and an adjunct professor at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania veterinary programs. In 2006, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimated there were about 154 million pet cats and dogs in the United States. The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are another 6 to 8 million entering shelters each year.
Overpopulation threatens the lives of companion animals more than any infectious disease and results from a combination of too many pets for the number of suitable homes and unprepared pet owners, says Dr. Jeanette O’Quin, current president of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians.
“Unrealistic expectations and poor understanding of normal behavior contribute to pet relinquishment, and far too many people treat pets simply as a convenience,” she says. Increased vigilance with spay and neuter programs has helped, but not solved the problem, adds O’Quin, a public health veterinarian with the Ohio Department of Health and a contract veterinarian with a local shelter.
But debating the semantics of pet overpopulation is a waste of time, Miller says, and those close to the debate would be better served figuring out how to make things better.
What has led many to believe the problem lies more with distribution than overpopulation is a lack of adoptable animals at some shelters and an abundance at others. But shelters with hospitals and behaviorists have more success at making unwanted pets with minor health or behavior issues adoptable, while shelters with less resources might turn more often to euthanization.
“Right or wrong, fair or unfair, it’s a realistic assessment of people’s resources,” Miller says.
And different regions have different wants and needs in terms of pets. Small breed dogs like Chihuahuas can easily be found in California, but not so much in New York, where small dogs are in high demand.
That’s why international importation, breeding and puppy mills still do so well, because people want certain kinds of pets and shelters might not be able to fulfill their needs. “You’re not going to make people take animals they don’t want,” Miller says. “And if they can’t get it here, they’re going to go somewhere else to get it.”
Concerns about transporting sheltered animals from overpopulated to underpopulated areas are valid, Miller says, explaining that disease is her primary concern. After Hurricane Katrina, heartworm was inadvertently spread as homeless pets were sent throughout the country from Lousiana. Vigilence in watching for disease and making sure a journey won’t cause an animal too much stress are paramount to successful transportation plans, she adds.
International distribution of unwanted animals brings even more concern, as foreign countries may harbor diseases that have been eradicated in the United States. Plus, rescuing a handful of dogs from another country does little to solve their problems and even less to solve the domestic crisis, she says.
“It doesn’t help to take out 15 dogs. There needs to be programs established in those countries,” Miller says. “I’m not opposed to rescuing foreign animals, but I do have concerns about it.”
But Saul doesn’t completely agree.
“I have mixed feelings about the borders. Veterinarians have one opinion about importing because of health issues,” Saul says. “But for those of us who are thinking about animal welfare issues, it becomes a little more blurry. The question becomes, why is it easier to bring pets in than to save pets here?”
Additionally, communities that have been vigilant with spay and neuter programs or animal control have smaller selections of unwanted animals available for adoption, but using that as a reason to scale back on animal control efforts can be dangerous, Miller says. Looking at overpopulation as a regional, rather than a national problem, could end up making things worse.
“If you characterize it as not a problem except in certain parts of the country, you let your guard down. What makes you think the same problems are not going to resurface?” Miller asks. “We have to be vigilant about it.”
Another unintended problem of pet overpopulation, one that starts with good intentions, is the decrease of euthanizations leading to more instances of animal suffering.
“Some shelters don’t want to euthanize, so they hold on to animals they can’t take care of, and they become overcrowded,” Miller says. “A lot of these animals get sick, and they die in the shelters. We’ve seen several cases where shelters have been hit with cruelty charges and animals have had to be removed and euthanized. It’s a misguided attempt to save more lives, but what it does is create more animal suffering. “They end up being animal hoarders and animal hoarders are prosecuted for cruelty. Whatever your intentions may be, it doesn’t absolve you from your responsibility. It’s unfortunate when you think an animal is going to a shelter to be rescued and ends up dying in substandard conditions.”
That’s where partnership agreements between shelters come are helpful, Miller says, even though the transport may carry risks.
“There are far more shelters willing to share their surplus than there are shelters looking to increase their intake,” O’Quin says. “Many successful transport programs exist and many more are being planned in order to better address the localized variations in supply and demand for specific adoptable pets.”
Professional and social networking over the internet has helped shelter partnerships make great strides, and maintaining a variety of animals is important to keeping adoption rates high at most shelters.
Veterinary involvement is key to the success of transport programs that can alleviate regional overpopulation, Miller says. O’Quin adds that panleukopenia, distemper and parvovirus all are easily transmitted and caused “disastrous outbreaks” at receiving shelters.
Veterinarians also can help make a difference in the number of animals deemed adoptable or unadoptable.
“What’s adoptable? That’s very subjective,” explains Miller.
The Association of Shelter Veterinarians is working on a guide to help shelters answer this question, she says. The document will include guidelines for standards of care in shelter animals, with a section on animal transport programs, O’Quin adds. Specific factors that should be taken into consideration when embarking on transport programs will be addressed, including animal and public health concerns, as well as legal requirements for interstate transport, she says.
Saul agrees says veterinary involvement is key to successful shelter partnerships. “In these areas where the animal control organizations are really underserved, they really need veterinary partnerships,” Saul says. “They need education, they need access to information, they need veterinarians on board.”