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According to the Humane Society of the United States, an amazing 17 million people plan to get a pet within the next year.  But more startling is that each year 8 million pets enter animal shelters, and between 3 and 4 million of those pets are euthanized because they have not been adopted.  So, if 17 million people want pets and 8 million pets want homes, what is the problem?  Why are there any pets in shelters, and why are any healthy pets euthanized?

Broadway Barks interviewed veterinarians, as well as shelter and rescue workers, to answer this puzzling question and the consensus is that misconceptions about shelter pets are the main culprit.

Shelter Pet Misconceptions

A stereotype of the shelter pet has emerged, which discourages people from adopting a pet from a shelter or animal rescue group.  It is unclear how many of these stereotypes developed, but correcting them and educating the public about the truths of shelter animals is the best hope for the millions of innocent, healthy pets who are destroyed every year.   Here are some of the biggest misconceptions about shelter animals:

Animals Are In Shelters Because They Were Bad Pets” – Inexperienced pet owners often have unrealistic expectations for their pets and are unprepared for some of the typical challenges associated with a pet.  Many pets are surrendered to shelters or rescues for behavioral issues that usually stem from a lack of proper training.  Dr. Michelle Vitulli, a Cornell-educated Veterinarian likes to remind people that, “a dog may not have had a good puppyhood, but that doesn’t mean that it is a bad dog—it just hasn’t been in a loving, caring environment where it had any sort of training.”  For most dogs, a basic obedience class will eliminate many common behaviors such as jumping up, excessive barking, and going potty indoors.  Many people also have success doing home training with their pet and there are many books and resources to help them if they want to take that route.  Either way, training is key to integrating a pet into a new home.

Shelter Animals Have Costly Medical Problems” – Most shelter animals are perfectly healthy.  They usually are surrendered by parents who cannot care for them for a variety of reasons such as military deployment, relocation, financial trouble, time constraints, or the illness or death of the previous owner.  Some animals do come into the care of a shelter or rescue group due to a medical issue such as allergies, epilepsy, or diabetes; however, many of these issues are easily treatable with medication, especially when diagnosed early.   Some common issues like fleas, mites, and ticks are very treatable, but when left untreated can cause serious skin and health issues that may seem daunting to inexperienced pet owners.

Shelter Dogs are Mutts and I Want a Purebred” – It is true that most of the animals in shelters are mixed breeds.  However, according to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), 25% of dogs in shelters are purebreds.  So, while you might have a harder time finding a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel at a shelter, it is not impossible.  And often times you will find popular purebreds such as Chihuahuas, Pugs, and Poodles in shelters and rescues.  Furthermore, there are many breed-specific rescue groups out there with wonderful purebred dogs who need forever homes.  As Dr. Vitulli noted, there is also an increase in popularity for specific mixed breed dogs such as the Labradoodle, Puggle, and Yorkiepoo.  These dogs are not purebreds, but are wildly popular due to characteristics such as non-shedding and small size and they can often be found in shelters and rescues.  Additionally, children’s movies about Dalmatians and Chihuahuas have led to the temporary popularity of these, not necessarily child-appropriate breeds, and their increased numbers in shelters and rescues.

Shelter Animals Are Older and I Want a Puppy or Kitten” – National statistics on the age of animals in shelters are not available because they vary drastically from state to state and shelter to shelter.  However, many puppies and kittens are available in shelters and come from owner surrenders when their pet has babies and they cannot take care of all of them, or from animal control pick-ups when strays are found.  Many rescue groups will also have puppies and kittens available as they are rescued from breeding mills or as pregnant animals in their care give birth.  But, there are some benefits to adopting an adult dog.  Many adult animals in shelters have already been house trained, and adopting an adult dog allows the owner to really get to know the personality of their dog right away.  As Dr. Vitulli said, “We see a lot of personalities changing at about the 4-6 month age, so you really don’t know your dog’s personality until it’s over 6 months of age.” 

Make Adoption the First Option

So why should one of the 17 million prospective pet owners in the US adopt instead of buying their pet from a breeder or pet store?  Patti Stinson, Animal Advocate and Rescuer with A Forever Home, says it is an ethical issue, “Animals are dying in shelters; how can you in good conscience go and buy a dog?”  But if saving the lives of the 3 to 4 million animals killed each year is not a convincing reason, here are more reasons why adoption should be the first option:

Adopting a Pet is an Enriching Life Experience – Adopted pets often know that they have been adopted.  They know their situation has changed and that they are more comfortable and happy.  These pets give their new owners unconditional love, affection, attention, and loyalty.   Pet adoption has also proven to be beneficial to human health.  Research indicates that pet ownership has both positive psychological and physical health benefits for humans.  Caring for pets often provides the owner a sense of fulfillment and can prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation.  Pet owners benefit from lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and owners who regularly walk their dogs experience improved blood circulation and an increase in bone strength.

Buying Animals from Stores or Breeders Provides Financial Incentives to Keep Breeding – When you buy an animal from a breeder or a pet store, that business is now short on inventory and has a financial incentive to continue breeding animals.  This simple economic principle often leads to over-breeding and puppy mills where people do not properly care for the animals and are interested only in the bottom line—money.   Pet stores and breeders often put profit above the welfare of the animals.

Adopting Animals from Shelters Helps Your Community – The large number of animals in shelters takes an enormous moral and economic toll on local communities who struggle to provide for the large number of animals in their care.  Government shelters spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on caring for animals and often are forced to euthanize those animals that are not being adopted to make room for new animals.  Adopting an animal from a shelter helps decrease the financial strain on government and private shelters caused by labor, food, medical, and infrastructure costs.

You’ll Save Money – Purebred animals from pet stores and breeders can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars.  Many shelters and rescues charge the minimal in adoption fees and as Patti Stinson says, “When you get an animal from a responsible rescue they are spayed or neutered, heartworm tested, and on heartworm preventative, de-wormed, groomed if necessary, and vaccinated.”  The foster homes can also give details about a pet’s personality and likes and dislikes.  This saves the new owner hundreds of dollars, plus they are not paying a huge price for the animal itself.  Additionally, adoption fees allow the rescue to bring in another homeless animal that might have been killed in a shelter.  Adoption fees do vary depending on if the animal is in a government shelter or a private rescue group.  Government shelters often charge adoption fees as little as $40.  Rescue groups charge more because they have provided all required veterinary services and must recoup their costs.

Many people are unaware of the extent of the animal over-population problem.  Most are also unaware that millions of healthy animals are euthanized simply because no one has adopted them.  The misconceptions about shelter and rescue animals need to be combated through education if the 8 million pets in shelters are to be saved.  Spread the word.

By Charlene Sloan

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