Educational Series: Pet Overpopulation is an Urgent Crisis

By Nick Engelfried
Every year, an estimated 7.6 million homeless cats and dogs are taken into shelters in the United States. Some are strays who may never have known a loving home, while others are surrendered by owners who are unable or unwilling to care for them. Each one of these animals desperately needs adequate food, shelter, and affection–but chillingly, many will never make it out of the shelter alive. The flood of unclaimed animals has left human societies utterly unable to provide for all of the homeless cats and dogs in need. As a result, about 2.7 million animals are eventually euthanized in shelters annually.

The huge number of pets in need of good homes represents a crisis–but it is a preventable one, caused by the fact that cats and dogs are allowed to reproduce at rates that have led to massive overpopulation. Spaying and neutering both pets and stray cats and dogs is the best and most humane solution to animal overpopulation, and society must put more resources into making these options affordable and accessible. But how did this crisis develop in the first place?

Prior to modern pet spaying and neutering techniques, stray and pet dogs and cats reproduced freely–with devastating results for both animals and people. By the late nineteenth century, many US cities were overrun with feral dog packs. In major cities like Detroit and New York, streets were strewn with the bodies of stray dogs killed in fights or accidents. “Dog executioners,” who sometimes were local enforcement, shot dogs on sight–cutting short the lives of countless strays, while also inadvertently killing many beloved pets.

For stray dogs during this period, life was brutal and usually short. In addition to contending with lack of shelter, starvation, and being shot at, strays suffered from rampant diseases like rabies. Infected animals died slow, miserable deaths, sometimes infecting humans or other animals first with a potentially deadly bite. “Mad dog” panic in US cities led to the mass persecution of strays–including healthy dogs who became victims of the mad dog hysteria. It was an untenable situation for dogs and people alike.

Fortunately, the advent of humane, cost-effective spaying and neutering techniques made it possible to begin curbing the pet overpopulation crisis beginning in the 1930s. In 1969, the first low-cost pet spaying and neutering clinic opened, ushering in a new era in which these procedures would become increasingly accessible to pet owners and shelters. The wider availability of spaying and neutering options, along with mass public awareness campaigns run by human societies, led to a dramatic decrease in the number of stray animals in the US. This, in turn, resulted in fewer strays being euthanized.

Pet euthanizations peaked around the 1970s, when approximately 100 cats and dogs were euthanized for every 1,000 people in the US population. Today, this number has declined to 12.5 animals euthanized per 1,000 people. This dramatic drop points to the effectiveness of spaying and neutering campaigns and is a testament to the hard work of thousands of animal advocates. However, there are still far too many animals needlessly put to death every year.

With spaying and neutering options now widely available, why are there still so many unwanted animals without a home? Part of the problem is a continued need for public education. It is important that every pet owner understands the need to spay or neuter as one of the prime responsibilities of keeping a dog or cat. Programs like stray cat spay/neuter and release initiatives also need more resources. However, another piece of the puzzle is that cats and dogs are still being bred for profit, with no consideration for how doing so contributes to the pet overpopulation crisis.

The International Society for Animal Rights estimates that 90 percent of puppies sold in pet stores come from puppy mills, a term for breeding facilities whose goal is to mass produce dogs or cats for sale. Living conditions at puppy (or cat) mills are frequently deplorable, with investigations of such facilities reporting animals living in piles of waste, exposed to the elements, or in tiny cages. Unsurprisingly, diseases and even maggot infestations often run rampant under such conditions.

The flood of dogs and cats from breeding mills, to pet stores, into homes across the US means fewer forever homes are available for strays and shelter animals. According to the Humane Society of the United States, 2.6 million dogs bred in puppy mills are sold every year. The total number of animals–both cats and dogs–euthanized in US shelters is estimated to be about 2.7 million. This means if every person buying from a pet mill were instead to purchase from a shelter, the euthanization of unwanted animals could be almost completely eliminated!

Clearly, shutting down pet mills is an essential part of curbing pet overpopulation. Luckily, there are signs of trends moving in the right direction. Hundreds of states and localities now ban pet stores from sourcing animals from puppy or cat mills, reducing the market for mass-produced animals and encouraging stores to instead partner with local shelters by offering rescued animals up for adoption. If you live in a place where the mill to pet store pipeline still operates, contacting your state or local elected officials and urging them to implement a ban is one of the most effective steps you can take to combat the pet overpopulation crisis.

Of course, public education also remains a vital part of the solution. Talk to pet owners you know, and make sure they understand the importance of buying from a shelter instead of a pet mill, and spaying or neutering their animal companions. Many people who purchase animals at a pet store simply have no idea their new pet was bred in a facility whose only goal is to maximize profit at the expense of animal welfare. The more aspiring owners understand the importance of researching where their new companion comes from, the more animals can be saved from unnecessary euthanasia.

The fight against pet overpopulation has made immense progress since the 1800s, when rabies and other diseases ran rampant among the packs of unsheltered, hungry feral dogs roaming the streets of US cities. However, with millions of animals continuing to die needlessly every year, there is still a very long way to go to bring this ongoing tragedy under control. Public education, state and local legislation, and efforts to make spaying and neutering as affordable and accessible as possible are all pieces of the solution–and victory is within reach.

With enough work from the community of animal lovers all over the country, we can achieve a future where no animal is put to death or goes for long without a home because of animal overpopulation.

Photo credit: This Year’s Love

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About how many cats and dogs are taken into US shelters every year?
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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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