Each year in this country, 8 to 10 million lost and unwanted dogs and cats enter animal shelters. They have about a fifty percent chance of getting out alive: 4 to 6 million of them will be euthanized - around a half million a month nationwide, 575 each hour, one every six and a half seconds.
While the reasons for this tragedy are multi-faceted, they're not complicated. And, the problems that cause animals to become homeless and end up in animal shelters are preventable, with the solutions in all of our hands.
Problem #1: Lost and "stray" animals.
Statistics indicate that an animal is lot every 30 seconds, and that at some point in their lives, one in five animals will become lost. Some of them are dogs and cats who are usually safely confined at home but somehow slip out unnoticed through an open door or an unlatched gate. Many are animals who are routinely allowed to roam on their own, or what are not confined at all. Whatever the reason, millions of them flow into animal shelters. A small percentage of them are reunited with their families, while most are never found: nationally, only 16% of lost dogs and 2% of lost cats are claimed from shelters by their families.
Solution #1: Identification, safe confinement.
The critical yet simple key to this aspect of the homeless animal problem is some form of identification so that a lost animal can get back home. I.D. tags are the most basic form of identification, are widely available, and come in all shapes and sizes. Microchip identification is becoming more and more common, and provides a permanent form of identification that can't be separated from the animal. All dogs and cats - even those who are indoor-only - should always wear some form of identification.
In addition, safely confining companion animals, not allowing them to roam, always knowing where they are and looking for them the minute it is realized they are missing, are simple yet crucial practices that would dramatically reduce the numbers of lost and stray animals entering animal shelters each year.
Problem #2: Overpopulation
The statistics are staggering: a female dog and her puppies are theoretically capable of multiplying to over 67,000 in just six years, and a female cat and her kittens can result in over 400,000 offspring in only seven years. Although in some areas of the country there has been progress in this aspect of the homeless animal tragedy, throughout most of the country puppies and kittens arrive at shelters in staggering numbers.
Unintentional breeding is part of the problem - the mating of animals whose guardians didn't realize they were old enough, or didn't realize they were in heat, or just didn't take any action to prevent it. Intentional breeding also contributes to overpopulation, by those who want to witness the "miracle of birth," or those who are still under the impression that animals should have a litter before being spayed. The breeders who create and supply a market for purebred animals also contribute, as do those who breed their purebred animal as a way to bring in some extra cash.
As long as there are not enough homes for them all, any animal added to the population, for whatever reason, helps feed companion animal overpopulation and contribute to the euthanasia of massive numbers of animals in shelters.
Solution #2: Spaying and neutering.
Spay and neuter, routine surgical procedures which prevent animals from reproducing, are the answers to this facet of the homeless animal problem. Not only do spaying and neutering prevent overpopulation, they are also of benefit to the animals: studies show spayed and neutered animals live longer, healthier lives with fewer medical and behavioral problems.
Some people worry that is it "unnatural" to spy or neuter companion animals. But our companion animals have to live with us in our world, where sexual maturity creates a continual and stressful battle of physical drives. Unaltered animals reveal this stress with a higher incidence of behavior and temperament problems; unneutered male dogs are three times more likely to bite than neutered dogs; 90% the dogs hit by cars are unneutered males. For their own comfort, and for their own safety, companion animals should be spayed and neutered before they reach six months of age.
Problem #3: Surrendered animals.
"Sheds". "destructive". "barks". "digs". "can't control". "divorce". "new baby". "going on vacation". "moving". "boyfriend doesn't like". "allergies". "not enough time for". "too much work". "too big". "too old". "don't want anymore".
All of the above are commonly-cited reasons for surendering animals to shelters. These "reasons" suggest a basic underlying dynamic: that the decision to acquire an animal was made casually, without much forethought and planning, or that the guardian had unrealistic expectations about an animal's needs and how that animal would fit into day to day life.
Solution #3: Education, information, support
Dogs and cats can live 15 years or more, during which they will be completely, utterly dependant upon their guardians. Potential guardians should consider the commitment carefully, and, if ready for the commitment, take the time to make a careful and informed choice of animal, to make a good match that will be compatible with their lifestyle. Thinking ahead to life's changes, and how an animal will be accommodated during those changes, is essential. And when problems do arise, working through those problems, persevering and not giving up, drawing on support such as behavior hotlines, training, and other resources, are the acts of commitment that keep an animal out of the shelter.
Nationally, only 20% of the dogs and cats in homes are adopted from animal shelters. Though permanent solutions to the homeless animal problems must focus on preventing animals from even being in shelters in the first place, the low percentage of animals obtained from shelters and rescue groups certainly compounds the tragedy.
It is important to remember that shelters cannot solve the homeless animals problem for us. Although they should, and must, create programs that reach out beyond their walls to prevent animals from becoming homeless - identification and microchipping programs, low cost spay/neuter, pet parenting classes and animal behavior help, for instance - we must use these programs. We are the ones who must make the commitment, and take the actions, to ensure that we never cause an animal to be in an animal shelter. We must understand: as soon as this country stops filling animal shelters with homeless animals, the killing can stop.
Ultimately, though, we need to transcend sheltering and the current shelter system in this country. The shelter system, as it exists today, and has existed for decades, has as one of its primary functions the processing of living beings - either by recycling them to new homes or destroying them, but to dispose of them somehow, to relieve people and communities of their responsibility for them. It is a tangible sign of our society's deep disconnection from other beings, a disconnection so profound and damaging that we could legitimately categorize it as a sickness.
We need to acknowledge this sickness and how it plays out in our shelters, and never make excuses for it or believe that it is acceptable. The truth is, there should not be a need in a civilized society for a system that disposes of animals as if they were trash. We need to tell this truth, as an act of respect to the animals, and because the truth cannot be changed until it can be seen.
At the deepest level, the only thing that will heal this sickness, and alleviate the pain we feel over this issue, is to simply end the killing. To create communities that no longer have overwhelming homeless animal problems and have, therefore, no need to kill animals. To create communities that find killing to be an unacceptable answer, and that see animals as having value and beauty, as beings with a sacred spark of life and spirit.