The problem of homelessness in America is cause for alarm -- and for action. Most of us are aware of the distressing reality of homelessness faced every day by millions of our fellow citizens -- war veterans, the mentally ill, children, families, the working poor. Far fewer are aware of another homeless population among us. Even the size of this neglected population is difficult to determine and it is entirely unable to advocate for itself.
The number of homeless dogs and cats in the U.S. cannot be established by merely tallying up the numbers at all the animal shelters. The fact is, many, perhaps most, surplus pets never enter the shelter system. Yet their lives may be at greater risk than those that do enter shelters. If we are to address the problem of homelessness among our country's dog and cat population, and reduce the horrors that face this population (neglect, roadside abandonment, intentional cruelty, euthanasia), we must include the uncounted, the "invisible," among them in the discussion.
In considering the issue of homeless pets, some may argue that if all pets were simply obtained from animal shelters, the number of homeless companion animals would gradually be reduced to the point that the euthanasia of healthy, loving dogs and cats would largely cease. However, that would not work because the math just doesn't add up.
According to the Spay USA website, 70,000 pets are born in the U.S. each day, while according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 10,957.2 people are born each day (or 3,999,386 annually). So unless families pick up their seven dogs or cats each time there is an addition to the family, the number of surplus pets will continue to exceed the number of homes available to them.
By focusing our efforts on adoption instead of reducing births we may cycle different, but not fewer, pets through the shelter system. Only by reducing the number of unintended births among our dog and cat population can we hope to reduce euthanasia, neglect and cruelty.
According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA) the world's leading pet products and manufacturers trade association, the largest source of household pets is not the local animal shelter, a breeder, or a pet store. A 2012 APPA poll revealed that while 21 percent of dogs are obtained from shelters and 26 percent from breeders, 39 percent are from the combined random sources of friend, family member or stray -- sources that typically reflect impulse decisions, not planned adoptions. The number of cats obtained from a friend, family member or stray is reported to be 75 percent. And for both dogs and cats, the number obtained as a stray is greater than the number coming from pet stores. These figures represent the cycles of pets in poverty; pets obtained from these sources are at risk of producing even more unintended litters that are also likely to join the ranks of the invisible homeless.
An April, 2009, a Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) article revealed that household income is the greatest predictor of whether or not pets undergo a spay/neuter operation, with homes earning under $35,000 being almost half as likely to have pets altered than homes over $75,000. Ultimately, most unwanted litters originate in low-income communities and the pets are likely to be passed on to their new homes unaltered and with the mothers remaining at risk of producing more litters. Those concerned with shelter euthanasias and animal neglect should be alarmed that the animals most likely to suffer are the unplanned puppies and kittens that are passed between family members, friends and neighbors, or given away in parking lots or through newspaper ads and websites like Craigslist. According to Pet-Abuse.com, a national database on animal cruelty, dogs are the number-one animal victim targeted for cruelty. Pet-Abuse.com also notes that "free-to-good home" advertisements, a common method for placing unplanned litters in communities without shelters, increase the risk of an animal becoming a victim. Intact male dogs are victims in 80 percent of canine cruelty cases, followed by puppies.
Even if we were to count only the animals that enter the shelter system, the number of homeless is startling: According to Oxford Pets, roughly eight million surplus animals will enter shelters in the U.S. this year. Some will enter as part of a litter and others will enter as adults. Only 25 percent of the dogs and a very small percentage of cats will be purebred; 75 percent of dogs and nearly all of the cats will be mixed breed animals that originated in unplanned and largely unwanted litters. Most will originate in low-income communities and fewer than half will leave the shelters alive.
Although we may be drawn to complex socio-economic explanations to account for and address the problem of homelessness in people, in the case of homeless pets we need to begin with the simple fact that there are just too many dogs and cats for the number of homes available for them and that being part of this surplus leaves millions of dogs and cats out in the cold. Although affordable spay/neuter services exist in many urban areas of our nation, throughout vast areas of the U.S., spay/neuter services remain spotty and unavailable. Literally millions of surplus animals are born as a result of that void. Without increasing convenient access to spay/neuter programs and mandating their use, effecting change in many areas of the nation could still take decades.
With ad campaigns and other encouragements, we can, perhaps, increase the number of cats and dogs entering and leaving through the revolving door of our local animal shelters, but spay/neuter programs, not adoption, prevent the overwhelming number of excess pets from needing homes, entering shelters or becoming victims, no matter where on the timeline they are counted.
Nancy Atwater, executive director of Tulsa-based Spay Oklahoma, a high volume spay/neuter program founded in 2004 that currently provides over 12,000 spays or neuters to pets in low-income Tulsa City/County homes each year, says that much of this is a matter of common sense. According to Atwater, "The shelters in most large cities are diligent about spaying or neutering pets before release. So if most pets came from either shelters or breeders, urban spay/neuter programs would serve largely purebred dogs and cats. But that's not what happens. Our clients mainly have mixed-breed animals that were obtained locally. And we see almost as many of these as the number of surplus pets that enter the local shelter every year."
The number of pets entering shelters may be equaled by the number of surplus pets that are never counted. Our vision, and our solution, needs to encompass all that are at risk of hunger, cruelty and neglect.
Shifting our current practice from the collection and dispersal of homeless animals to preventing their births can stop the suffering and abate the need for building or expanding shelters. It can be done. It just means changing our strategy to spay/neuter, something that is cheaper, easier and more humane than building shelters to lock up unwanted pets. This should not take decades.