Adopting Your Pet from a Shelter – Risky or Rewarding?

No one really knows how many dogs and cats are in the United States, but there’s plenty of debate about whether or not this country suffers from pet overpopulation.

Dr. Becker’s Comments:

Some argue it’s a distribution problem. Shelters say we’re still killing adoptable animals.

As the article suggests, there’s considerable debate about whether a pet overpopulation problem still exists in the U.S.

Some believe the problem isn’t that there are too many adoptable companion animals, but that some areas of the country have too many while other areas don’t have enough to meet local demand. They also point to overburdened shelters – fallout from a flagging economy – as presenting a temporary situation that is skewing the numbers higher.

On the other side of the argument are those who believe that while the numbers of unwanted dogs and cats have improved dramatically, adoptable animals are still dying in shelters – a clear indication the overpopulation problem still exists.

These people see a number of problems contributing to overpopulation, including:

  • Too many pets and too few suitable homes
  • Unprepared pet owners with unrealistic expectations and a lack of understanding of normal companion animal behavior
  • Owners who view their pets as a convenience, or an accessory, or as disposable

Unfortunately, shelters aren’t required to keep statistics, so it’s impossible to accurately assess the size of the problem.

The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) estimates six to eight million dogs and cats are relinquished to shelters each year, and three to four million are euthanized.

Unintended Consequences of Doing the Right Thing

Communities that have implemented and maintained effective spay/neuter and other animal control programs have reduced or eliminated their pet overpopulation problems.

But because they have relatively small populations of adoptable animals and not much variety, they lack supply to meet the demands of local residents looking to add a pet to their family – especially a dog. So prospective pet owners look elsewhere for the particular breed or size dog they want.

This is one of the reasons international importations, irresponsible breeders and puppy mills stay in business.

Another reason is because they can answer the specific demands of different areas of the country. For example, adoptable Chihuahuas can be found in abundance in several Western states, but not in New York where living spaces and lifestyles make small dogs in great demand.

Well run, well funded shelters can also inadvertently add to the problem of too little supply to meet demand.

Shelters with on-site hospitals and animal behavior specialists have higher adoption rates than shelters with fewer resources, because they are able to work more extensively with animals with health or behavior issues to make them adoptable.

Transporting Adoptable Pets to Less Crowded Shelters is Problematic

There are many more crowded shelters than there are shelters looking for animals to take in, so partnerships among shelters are crucial for successful movement of pets from over to under-populated areas.

Networking over the internet has proved tremendously helpful in encouraging shelter partnerships. When shelters have a variety of animals available, adoption rates are high. Partnerships among shelters facilitate not only the transport of adoptable pets, but also the right mix of animals to optimize adoption rates.

Many successful transport programs exist and more are being developed, however, there are a number of problems associated with moving shelter animals. Disease is the biggest concern, especially when animals are moved due to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

A rise in the number of no-kill shelters has resulted in instances of severe overcrowding and substandard care. Sick dogs and cats transported from overwhelmed no-kill shelters pose health risks to animals in receiving shelters.

Absorption of imported pets into U.S. shelters poses its own set of risks, as dogs and cats from foreign countries may be harboring diseases that have been stamped out here.

Another concern is the stress pets undergo during transport.

The involvement of the veterinary community is critical to the success of shelter-to-shelter transport programs. Vets can reduce and prevent outbreaks of disease resulting from the transfer and introduction of sick animals to healthy shelter populations.

Veterinarians can also help in the decision making process for which animals are adoptable and which are not.

Toward that end, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians is developing a guide to help shelters answer the question of what constitutes an adoptable pet. The guide will also include standards of care in shelters and a discussion of shelter pet transport programs.

How You Can Be Part of the Solution

  • If you’re planning to add a new four-legged family member to your household, make a commitment to bring home only a sheltered or rescued animal.
  • If you’ll be a new pet parent or have had unsatisfactory experiences with pet ownership in the past, do your homework so that you know which type of pet best suits your family’s temperament and lifestyle. You can do lots of research right on your computer. I also encourage you to talk with a veterinarian, breeder, or other knowledgeable source about the particular pet you’re considering adopting.
  • If you can’t find the pet you’re looking for locally, consider widening your search. This is easy to do with online services like

    If you locate an adoptable pet that might be a good match in a shelter outside your area, contact the shelter to see if they do non-local adoptions and what transport arrangements are available.

  • When you bring your new adopted furry friend home, it should be with the understanding you are making a commitment to your pet’s health and happiness for the rest of his life.

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