An Integrated System To Fight Companion Animal Abandonment
Most of us would be hard-pressed to remember someone who hasn’t spent at least some time caring for or living with a companion animal. In fact, half of all Europeans live with at least one animal in their home, and up to two-thirds of U.S. households live with one or more. However, to keep up with the constant demand, the number of companion animals bred to be sold every years is way too high, leading to overpopulation. As is often the case, such a commodification and an overabundance of animals reduce both the price and ‘value’ of the animals being sold. Sadly, when caretaker-companion bonds drop in “value,” the likelihood of abandonment and euthanasia skyrockets. This is, simply, the effect of market dynamics on living, sentient beings.
In this study, a group of researchers from Spain and Belgium joined forces to come up with a well-planned strategy to improve how companion animals are bred and traded, with the hope of reducing instances of abandonment. The authors emphasize that issues stemming from companion animal overpopulation and corresponding abandonment include four key aspects:
- Animal welfare: abandoned animals face stresses such as starvation, diseases, climatic extremes, uncertainties of rescue, and adoption.
- Ecological impact: upon exposure to urban or wild ecosystems, animals can become invasive, potentially predating on local wildlife and transmitting disease.
- Public health and safety: homeless animals may attack people, spread zoonoses, or become road hazards.
- Economic: abandoned animals become financial burdens for governmental and non-governmental organizations that take up their care.
The researchers suggest that these problems persist for several reasons, including a lack of an efficient system for the prevention of abandonment and overpopulation, a lack of regulatory liability for animal caretakers, and a lack of legal alternatives to abandonment.
Many countries have attempted to implement penalties and criminal sanctions for animal abandonment. However, such measures are clearly ineffective as incidences of abandonment are on the rise in the countries studied. The authors argue that this is because it usually is a covert and anonymous act, making identification and punishment of offenders difficult. After being found on the streets, such animals often end up in shelters, where, at a daily cost of €6 (about $7 USD) per small dog, during the lifetime of such a dog, the upkeep would cost above €34,000 (about $40,000 USD) — that is, unless he/she is adopted or euthanized, which happens 60–70% of the time. Naturally, taking care of exotic animals is an even more expensive and complex endeavor.
Alternatively, abandoned animals can end up in traffic accidents, where both people and companion animals fall victim. Such costs add up to £14.6 million ($20.1 million USD) annually in the U.K. alone, constituting a frequent cause for abandoned animal deaths in urban areas. While in ecosystems, invasive species amount to an estimated cost of $120 billion per year just in the United States.
The researchers propose an integrated system where people would require accreditation of suitability to acquire a companion animal. That is, each person would have to go through animal care and responsibility training, a criminal record check, economic stability assessment, comply with space availability requirements, and thus would not be able to buy animals directly from stores, breeders, or online suppliers. This should also align the supply to meet the demand without resulting in overpopulation. Additionally, to prevent abandonment, as well as to better provide for companion animal welfare, a compulsory health and survival insurance scheme would be enforced which would ensure that the animal is well taken care of even if their original caretaker cannot provide them with a loving home anymore. The researchers estimate that such an insurance service could cost around €400–500 ($470-590 USD) per year, for an average-sized dog.
The proposed system and its structure give clear ideas for what animal advocates could strive for to reduce the number of companion animals being abandoned. Namely, potential caretakers need to be qualified and able to sustain high welfare for the animal, breeders should follow the demand more closely and not drive overpopulation, and finally, caretakers must take out companion animal health and survival liability insurance to ensure life-long care. While the majority of animal advocates would prefer that companion animal breeding stop altogether, this more moderate strategy and systematized approach could help reduce overpopulation.
Editor’s Note: It’s important to recognize that there are different approaches and ideas related to the issue of companion animal abandonment. The approach outlined above, while comprehensive, works through a process of penalization, and some maintain that making it more difficult to acquire and keep animals does not help reduce pet populations, maintains prejudices against certain types of people, and ultimately harms pets. Notably, some groups such as the HSUS have outlined approaches which work to keep companion animals in homes in a way that attempts to avoid such pitfalls.