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An Approach to High Shelter Euthanasia RatesJump to a Section:
In the past, the job of animal pounds and shelters was promoting public health and safety by removing free ranging animals from our streets, and second to that, the prevention of unnecessary suffering.
Euthanasia was the key tool of the trade and a necessary final kindness to sick, aged, and unwanted animals.
It is no longer so simple. Across the country, citizens' groups are asking officials to reduce euthanasia rates, even demanding that they be reduced to zero -- the 'no kill' idea. Many of these initiatives take a strongly moral tone -- "STOP THE KILLING!" Unbalanced budgets, domestic security, immigration-related issues and health care problems are on every agenda but never mind, the most loudly argued and contentious issue may be the number of animals euthanized by the local animal shelter.
Why All the Outrage?
The motivations are twofold: First our rising standard of living has made it possible to give better care to our animals; it is entirely reasonable to want to reduce unnecessary deaths. Most people in the crusade to reduce shelter euthanasias simply love animals and don't like to see them born only to die in shelters.
But second and increasingly prominent is the animal rights motivation. This is a worldwide movement with the goal of eliminating all domesticated animals via a strategy of making animal relationships steadily more costly and difficult. Bludgeoning animal pounds with "STOP THE KILLING" seems contrary to that goal but is actually a key tactic because it can be used to promote laws that both disrupt human/animal relationships and increase euthanasias.
Making sound animal policies now requires far more time and effort than one would expect -- or (considering the seriousness of other issues facing society) even want. The best policy depends on local details.
Data adequate for decision making may not exist when the issue arises in a locality, and there will often be strongly promoted but conflicting 'right answers'' It may be necessary to conduct a narrowly defined and closely monitored study to understand the situation in each area. The problems in New York City are not the same as those in Dalton, Georgia.
Mother told us there'd be decades like this, right?
There are no nationwide shelter statistics. First, no one has mandated (or been willing to pay for) their collection. Additionally, data are reported in different formats and levels of detail; some shelters report only informally to local officals.
However good quality small sample studies have been done, mostly in the 1992-2000 time frame. Results at the time showed that nationwide euthanasias had gone down 75% in the preceding 20 years on a dog and cat population basis. With the increased emphasis on spay and neuter, and the emergence of rescue groups in the past few years, there's every reason to think that the trend has continued. If so, today, the national annual shelter and pound euthanasia rate would be around 4% of the total dog and cat populations. Numbers of the two species have been roughly comparable; however, the favorable trend in cats is slowing and may have reversed in some areas due to the establishment of feral breeding populations.
If free-ranging populations are being controlled, localities with rates significantly less than 4% are doing well. But the overall rate is only part of the story. The total figure must be understood piece by piece if it is to be evaluated.
Shelter populations consist of four main groups:
1. Animals picked up or turned in for euthanasia. They are ill, injured, old, or the owner doesn't want or can't keep the animal and believes it wouldn't adapt to a new home. Since euthanasia is a condition of the transfer of ownership to the shelter there's no easy or direct route to reducing this group.
2. Feral animals. In most localities there will be few feral dogs but numbers of cats may be significant. These animals rarely can be socialized as pets and many shelters euthanize them automatically.
These first two groups represent the proper working of our pound/shelter system, promoting public health and safety by keeping our streets free of unowned and unsupervised animals and providing the final kindness to those that would otherwise suffer needlessly.
3. Puppies/kittens that never obtained a home -- either born wild and picked up early enough to allow socialization, or born in a home but not placed. This group is the most likely to be adopted and across most of the country *few* puppies and kittens are now euthanized.
4. Adult pets, generally mostly young ones. These had a home but the home failed. Some are unadoptable by reason of health or temperament, some will be adopted. In most places the rest -- adoptable young adult animals -- are the great majority of reducible shelter euthanasias but the number varies from zero to quite substantial, depending on local conditions.
One possibility is that there is no problem in the community. In a number of localities a combination of favorable demographics, long-time educational programs, and other factors allows shelters to truthfully say "We do not euthanize adoptable animals."
When that claim is made, one might want to check the criteria for adoptablity as they are sometimes manipulated to make the shelter look better. For example: In addition to obvious criteria, dogs that are black and over 40 pounds; over three years apparent age; of any 'bull' breed or one of a long list of protective breeds; or that react in any way other than by withdrawing to being poked repeatedly with a broomstick may be considered 'unadoptable' and euthanized.
Shelters are not always candid about their criteria. One should compare the stated criteria to the unadoptable/total intake fraction. If euthanasias are high (say much above 4% of pet population) and the fraction is very high, obtaining data by individual categories may be necessary and shelters may have to be asked to collect it.
Usually there are individuals in the community (former shelter employees and pet rescuers are the most common) who know if the 'unadoptable' category is being abused. Such reports cannot be depended on by themselves but if abuse is reported, the 'unadoptable' fraction seems high, and supporting data are unavailable or unconvincing, further investigation of shelter policies is warranted.
When the situation is the more common one of the shelter agreeing with others that the euthanasia rate is high, other questions must be examined.
A large fraction of very young animals is genuine 'overpopulation.' That is, more animals are being born than there are homes for. It's important to know where they're coming from but in most cases common sense and a bit of observation will give the answer:
If there are large numbers of free ranging dogs -- you see packs of dogs down almost any alley, there are chronic complaints of garbage cans being upset, and dogs picked up as strays are the large majority of shelter intakes, then the free ranging dogs are likely to be the major contributors to unwanted puppies. Nearly all of these puppies will be picked up on the street or turned in by persons reporting that they were picked up.
In most localities, most of the free-ranging dogs will be owned animals, turned out during the day while the owners are at work. Some will be fed regularly but allowed to roam continuously. However the proportion of sterilized animals is often low and they are not supervised to prevent breeding.
Overpopulation due to free-ranging animals requires a combination of several approaches:
1. A strongly enforced leash law. The streets *must* be cleared of free ranging animals; this is not just a primary public safety function but an essential first step to population control. This is labor intensive (hence expensive) work and it must be backed up by adequate shelter space to allow meeting the usual state mandated (and ethically required) minimum holding times for owners to reclaim their animals.
There is unfortunately no alternative to enforcing leash laws to clear the streets. You can threaten, you can punish but if you don't pick up animals you'll make people mad and drive them away from the system without solving the problem.
2. Spay/neuter programs that are in fact available to the owner population. If the population is largely poor this may require heavily subsidized or even completely free services. Consideration should be given to including licensing and rabies vaccinations in the package.
3. Educational programs to communicate not just the facts of the law and consequences of violation, but the advantages to the owner and pet of sterilization.
If free ranging dogs are uncommon then unintended or don't-care breeding of owned dogs is likely to be the main source of unwanted puppies. These puppies will be 'leftovers' from "Puppies -- $10" cardboard boxes at fleamarkets, "Free to a good home -- boxer x shep puppies" ads in the paper, and usually most will be turned in rather than picked up.
The same solutions as for large numbers of free ranging dogs (above) apply here but the emphasis is different. Leash law enforcement is essential but lower volume, education is important, ditto low cost spay/neuter programs.
"Overbreeding" by intentional home breeders is self correcting and thus unlikely to create an overpopulation problem. These breeders may be broken down into casual breeders selling for prices of $100-300 and show/sport/hobby breeders selling directly to the public at prices generally upwards of $300. Breeding by both groups is controlled by market forces. Casual breeders mainly do it for pocket money; unsold puppies are at least unprofitable. Among the most careful breeders, most do not expect a profit but out of pocket costs are often $500 and up per puppy and a litter that doesn't sell easily will not be repeated.
If healthy puppies and kittens are rarely euthanized by shelters, there is no overpopulation -- that is, the birth rate in that species is reasonably matched to the demand. If shelter euthanasias of adoptable animals are excessive, then it's because there's a higher rate of relinquishment of adults (usually young adults) than adoptions of these animals. This situation is best attacked on several fronts:
Relinquishment rates can be reduced by:
1. Establishment of and support for 'new owner' classes;
2. Publicizing pet-problem solving resources such as problem solving trainers, obedience and problem behavior classes, and selected email lists -- a list of good ones should be compiled;
3. Promoting owner/pet activities such as dog parks and pet carnivals. Owners who do things with pets are much less likely to relinquish them; and
4. Supporting obtaining of pets from sources that provide evaluation and matching of pet to home, support the home after the sale, and guarantee take-back if the pet cannot be kept. Sources that meet these criteria include quality pet rescues (lists should be maintained; do *not* go just by 501(c) 3 status but check the policies); responsible in-home breeders of dogs and cats.
Animal shelters cannot meet all of those requirements but can be encouraged to work as much as possible through rescuers who use entirely volunteer labor to do the many hours extra work required. This shelter-rescue partnership is natural but may be resisted on both sides; the payoffs are large enough to make it worth some effort.
Local pet clubs such as kennel and dog obedience clubs and cat fancier groups can often be encouraged to help with these tasks and the public cost is often minimal.
Adoption rates for adults can be raised by:
1. Advertising and marketing of available animals. Many pet stores and chains with pet sections will provide bulletin board space for photos and shelter contact information. Newspapers and small radio stations may do the same. Adoptathons and adoption days conducted by shelter volunteer groups will help. Large pet chain stores may provide in-house space for periodic adoption events.
2. Training shelter workers to evaluate a family's situation and promote an adult rather than a puppy or kitten when appropriate. This cannot be done simply by saying "We don't have any puppies" -- it requires engagement and discussion with a trained person. In general, a family that won't have an adult human at home nearly all of most days will do better with a selected adult pet than with a puppy or kitten because the latter requires on-demand attention and training plus steady supervision, throughout the day.
Minimizing the placement of puppies and kittens in homes that lack all day adult supervision will also reduce relinquishment rates because just as with children, unsupervised puppies often become poorly behaved young adults.
3. Promotion of 'seniors for seniors' programs can help get older pets (often considered unadoptable) into homes. Older pets are calmer, behavior problems are much less common, and their shorter remaining lifespan is a better match to those older humans who want a pet but can't assume a ten to twenty year commitment.
The benefits in properly matched homes are large for both the pet and the human. These programs are best handled by cooperation between shelters and volunteer groups because they require careful pet/home matching and some ongoing support. For example help with vet trips and a backup plan for pet care in case the client is temporarily unavailable or incapacitated can be offered.
MSN laws are so commonly proposed as a one-size-fits-all answer that they are worth separate discussion.
In a the fewest possible words -- Don't go there.
These laws are generally structured to place pets in three tiers:
Sterilized pets are licensed at a nominal fee.
Unsterilized pet license fees are high -- $100 is common -- and generally limited in numbers, that is a kennel or breeder license may be required for as few as two unsterilized animals.
Breeder licenses are costly -- $250-$1000/year and often accompanied by punitive requirements such as standardized record keeping and mandatory reporting, facilities standards such as surfaces that can be hosed down, and no notice/walk in inspections. These requirements are of course impossible of compliance by the average in-home breeder of one to a handful of litters per year so the effect is to drive the best breeders to stop breeding or leave the area.
The theory is that the way to reduce what is termed 'overpopulation' (although excessive euthanasias of adoptable adults is the more common problem) is to reduce the birth rate and that intentional breeding is the main source of births. Both of these beliefs are false and accordingly, these laws don't work.
1. These laws don't reduce euthanasias -- in fact they often increase them. The reason is that the number of owned, supervised, unsterilized animals is much greater than the number of puppies/kittens they produce in a year's time and retention is sensitive to laws that increase costs. If an MSN law is passed and enforcement is strong enough to actually change behavior, the largest single effect is increased abandonment and the abandoned animals wind up dead on the streets or in a shelter.
2. Because licensing is often an enforcement point for MSN laws, such laws make licensing percentages drop like a stone. "Okay, if she has to be spayed for $150 to avoid paying a $100 per year license fee, I just won't license her -- in fact I won't license any of our pets."
However... licensing is also a checkpoint for rabies vaccinations and a substantial fraction of owners only get rabies shots at the time of license renewal. Falling licensing rates means falling rabies vaccination rates -- a highly dangerous public policy.
3. MSN laws are most easily enforced against those who have to be most visible, particularly the careful home breeders who can be located via national and local club referrals, web sites, and advertising. As outlined above these laws are based on the belief that intended breeding is the cause of shelter euthanasias but the reverse is true -- pets from the best (most visible) breeders are the *least* likely to be found among shelter intakes because contracts requiring return of no longer wanted animals are the norm in this group, indeed some breeders now use a guaranteed repurchase clause.
I have spent hours reading newspaper stories and digging out what statistics can be easily found and I have yet to find one locality where MSN had a favorable effect. Some statistics for San Mateo County (California) are on line; MSN was a failure there after about a year and a half although it has not been repealed so far as I know. Montgomery County (Maryland) passed an MSN law but a government watchdog agency concluded that it wasn't working; it was repealed two years later. Los Angeles County passed the toughest MSN law anywhere but it was quietly deemphasized in favor of much more effective measures (discussed above) after a couple of years.
The usual natural history of these laws is a year of vigorous enforcement, a year of less enforcement, then enforcement only against people who make someone in the animal control establishment mad. Of course at that point, many otherwise good pet owners are violating the law.
The Interest Groups: Many groups will have viewpoints on pet animal policy but none can be counted on to be sufficiently free of bias to be a dependable single source. Decision makers must of course hear all views but it will be necessary to form independent judgements of the best course(s) of action. It is common for the right answers not to be among those most strongly argued.
Immigrant communities: Localities with a substantial immigrant community need to give their policies a very careful examination from the immigrant client viewpoint. If illegal immigrants are a significant factor, policies that require giving names and addresses will fail. Punitive and legalistic approaches will build resentment and noncompliance even more quickly than among poorer citizens communities and are guaranteed to fail. Some immigrants come from parts of the world where animal control consists of sending out teams to kill all visible pets when there are an 'excessive' number of human rabies cases; simply hiding pets is a familiar reaction.
Animal control in these communities should:
1. Emphasize public safety and health over simple legalistic/compliance issues. Keeping streets clear of free ranging dogs should be the first priority, rabies vaccinations should be second. Population control (if true overpopulation exists) is critical for the long term but third in immediate priority.
2. So far as possible adopt a professional and businesslike approach, minimize looking like government, avoid looking like an extension of the legal system.
Some animal control establishments will not easily adopt this approach and specific attention needs to be given to obtaining the client view of the system on an ongoing basis.
No-Kill Shelters: The shortest possible description of this idea is 'fraud.'
Any society that has pets will in the course of a year have some that are unsuitable to continue as pets and others that become ill or injured and whose owners (if known) won't or can't afford to take them to a vet for euthanasia. These animals will die somewhere and public safety as well as common decency demands that they be given a 'good death.'
It is both wise and good policy to strive to minimize euthanasias of adoptable animals but promoting 'no kill' hides and denigrates an essential public function. In some cases the promotion is flatly dishonest: a 'no kill' public facility may be paired with one or more other shelters and pets deemed unadoptable or less likely to be adopted are simply shipped out of town to be put down. In other cases as noted above, statistics and/or adoptability criteria are manipulated to give the appearance of 'no kill' at a shelter that may even have a high rate of euthanasias.
The 'no kill' urge should be resisted. Shelters perform an important public function. They should be funded appropriately, encoraged to do all of their jobs well and supported when they do so. Substandard performance should be handled exactly as in any other function.
Shelter Funding: "Follow the money ..." Whatever policy is formally adopted will be at least substantially adjusted according to the formula by which publicly supported shelters are funded. For example if it is desired to reduce euthanasia rates, then a policy of paying shelters significantly on a per-euthanasia basis should be changed.
Conflicts of interest: It's common for a veterinarian to sit on a shelter board of directors or even to chair such a board. It's also common for a veterinarian to be paid for performing euthanasia services. Policy should forbid the same veterinarian (or two with financial ties) doing both functions.