All About Dogs: Population And Shelter Trends In The United States
Dogs are perhaps the most familiar and beloved animals in the United States, but it was not so long ago that they were widely regarded as pests, or simply property. This study examines the raw data regarding dog euthanasia, adoption, and shelter intake rates, focusing on the 1970s onward to today. The data comes from a variety of sources, and taken together can be used to paint a fairly accurate picture of the situation in U.S. animal shelters.
The authors present the data in concert with examinations of different governmental policies and cultural changes surrounding dogs. By following their recommendations, we may make even more progress in ensuring every companion dog in the U.S. is healthy and happy, and that no dogs are put down unnecessarily.
In the early 1960s, 90% of all animals taken into shelters were euthanized, and one in four U.S. dogs lived on the street. Animal advocacy organizations framed this as an overpopulation crisis, and proposed several policies in response. Most are ones that we would take for granted today: licensing for all companion animals, encouraging guardians to keep their dogs on leash or indoors, promotion of sterilization, and regulation of breeders. These policies were mostly enacted on the local and state levels.
They worked: the 1970s saw a steep downturn in shelter intake rates and percentage of animals euthanized. The percentage of animals sterilized also rose dramatically, and this in particular is identified as a major contributor to the downturn in euthanasia rates. In 1971, only 11% of licensed dogs in Los Angeles were sterilized, but this number rose to near 50% by 1975, and currently sits near 100%.
Differential licensing – lower licensing fees for sterilized animals – is also identified as an effective tool. In King County, Washington, shelters saw a 14.6% decrease in intake in the years after a differential licensing policy was adopted, despite a 20% increase in the county’s population. Low-cost and easily accessible sterilization clinics have also had a major impact. New Jersey was one of the first states to make these services available, and the number of dogs impounded in the state dropped by 70% from 1984 to 2014. In the same period, their euthanasia rate fell by 90%. An increase in adoption rates has further reduced shelter euthanasia rates since 2010, which previously tracked shelter intake rates closely. This could be partially due to a nationwide Ad Council campaign promoting adoption, which began in 2009.
Cultural changes have come hand-in-hand with policy changes. With companion animal guardianship seen as more of a responsibility, more people began acquiring their dogs intentionally rather than simply adopting strays or taking in a dog from a friend or relative. In recent years, the percentage of dogs bred at home dropped from 5% to just under 1%, and the percentage of dogs acquired through adoption rose from 15% to 35%. Overall, having a dog has been transformed into a conscious, intentional decision, and more is expected of dog guardians. This cultural shift has resulted in dogs being treated much better than before – 71% of owners let their dogs sleep in their bed with them, and almost half buy their dogs birthday presents. Behavior which would be considered pampering in prior generations is commonplace, and has led to a marked increase in the quality of life for the average dog in the U.S.
One major takeaway from this paper is the effectiveness of combining institutional change with social change. In this review, we can see how governments enacted policies to encourage helpful behaviors like sterilization and discourage harmful ones like allowing dogs to roam free. At the same time, non-governmental organizations changed peoples’ views of their companion animals, from possessions to members of the family. Both of these changes were facilitated by advocacy organizations.
A further lesson to be learned here is the importance of accessibility. When enacting any policy that requires individuals to perform a behavior, the government will likely have more success if they make doing so easy. As animal advocates, we need to keep in mind that helping people along the right path is more effective than simply telling them which way to go, and hoping they take the advice.