by Samantha Drake
A sad story is inevitably behind every dog or cat surrendered to a shelter by its family. Even sadder is that owners may not know about the many resources that exist to help them keep their pets.
It’s important to remember that the majority of pets are surrendered to shelters through no fault of their own.
“Pets end up in shelters not because the pets have issues but because people have challenges,” says Inga Fricke, director at Keeping Pets in Homes for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in Washington, D.C.
“It’s not that people don’t care—they love their pets as much as anyone else.”
Animal rescue organizations are increasingly offering solutions to help pet owners keep their dogs, cats, and other pets. This may include offering free or low-cost advice from behavior experts, access to food banks, or temporary foster situations, says Fricke.
Keeping dogs and cats out of shelters in the first place would go a long way toward saving pets’ lives. The numbers say it all. The HSUS estimated in 2014 that there are:
- 3,500 brick-and-mortar animal shelters in the U.S.
- 10,000 rescue groups and animal sanctuaries in North America
- 6 to 8 million dogs and cats entering shelters every year
- 4 million dogs and cats adopted from shelters each year
- 3 million dogs and cats euthanized in shelters every year
- Of those euthanized, approximately 2.4 million, or 80 percent, could have been adopted because the pets were healthy or could have been treated
Therefore, the HSUS focuses on strategies to help people keep their pets through a number of programs. It’s important to note that while smaller animal rescue groups often don’t have the resources to help people keep their pets, smaller groups can usually refer people to larger organizations or resources that can help.
Communication about what programs and resources are available is key, adds Mick McAuliffe, the Animal Services Manager for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa (ARL) in Des Moines. “People just don’t know what’s out there,” he says.
Problems and Solutions
Here are the most common reasons people give up their pets and how taking such a drastic step can be avoided.
Aggressive behavior is a big reason why people surrender their pets, particularly for dogs. With cats, behavior issues most often center on not using the litter box. Unfortunately, too often pet owners don’t address a behavior issue until it has become an unmanageable problem, says McAuliffe.
Many rescue organizations offer information on how to address behavior problems on their websites—through training classes or by making behavior experts available.
ARL recently set up a “Free Behavior Assistant” service to answer common questions about dog and cat misbehavior. McAuliffe says the service will provide answers to a few questions at first, with more answers to be added over time. ARL also offers a free telephone hotline that addresses behavior questions for residents of central Iowa, as well as in-person pet behavior consultations, and group training classes for a fee.
Caring for a dog or cat can get expensive if that pet gets ill or injured. To help people keep their pets at home, the HSUS posts a list on its website of national and state organizations that offer financial assistance for pet owners.
For example, the Big Hearts Fund can help offset the cost of the diagnosis and treatment of cats and dogs with heart disease. Other organizations aim to help people with pets who have cancer or senior pets with health problems. Keep in mind that every organization has its own rules and guidelines for whom they can help.
Some pet owners feel they must give up their animals due to rental policies that prohibit or discourage pets. In its “Pets Are Welcome” program, the HSUS is working with property owners and managers to encourage more pet-friendly housing through responsible, humane policies.
The HSUS points out that 72 percent of renters have pets and that implementing such policies will give property owners access to a wider pool of potential residents. Local rescue organizations also may keep a list of pet-friendly rental housing.
Assistance for Underserved Communities
People living in poorer areas face myriad challenges in caring for their pets, which are often a combination of financial and logistical issues. “Underserved communities have been forgotten by animal rescue groups,” says Fricke.
For example, for people living in “veterinary deserts,” (i.e., areas where vets are not located near to where people live or near public transportation), taking their dog or cat to a vet for needed care is very difficult if they don’t have access to private transportation.
The HSUS’s “Pets for Life” program raises money to connect people in underserved communities with vital care for their pets, including spay and neutering, emergency care, medication, vaccinations, and pet supplies. Fricke says the program has helped lower the number of pets surrendered from areas where the need for help is the greatest.
How to Help Others
The families and friends of vulnerable pet owners, such as the elderly or people with ongoing health problems, can also help.
Fricke recommends asking pet owners what kind of assistance they might need, whether it’s transportation to the vet or initiating a discussion about what will happen to the pet when the pet owner is no longer living. Family and friends can also help by investigating what kind of assistance is available, from pet food banks to low-cost behavior experts, in the pet owner’s area.
Image: Alexander / Flickr