Animal sheltering is a field which requires the implementation of resource heavy programming to affect change. In a field with limited resources, it is vital to collect accurate and transparent data to best target at risk populations and develop programs that will be most effective.
Euthanasia of shelter animals is by far the leading cause of untimely death of cats and dogs in the United States today. Animals already in the sheltering system are those most at risk for euthanasia, and they are at risk for many reasons, including:
Sheltering facilities may be mandated by law to receive all animals and, therefore, required to euthanize animals for space.
Shelters may not have the resources to treat sick animals or to divert recovering, ill or injured animals, neonate litters or pregnant females to foster care until they are ready for adoption.
Disease outbreaks may cause animals to be euthanized.
Animals may become behaviorally at risk because they develop behaviors in the shelter environment that prevent them from being adopted.
Animal populations in a shelter may not meet the needs or expectations of the community, putting those animals at risk.
Certain populations of animals in the community are also at risk of ending up in a shelter, including stray and unowned animals, intact animals, feral cats, dogs subject to community breed bans, animals whose guardians don't have access to affordable spay/neuter services, veterinary care or pet identification, and animals whose guardians cannot find pet-friendly housing. (http://petpopulation.org/exploring.pdf)
Experts in the animal welfare industry agree that data collection, reporting and analysis are essential to accountability, liability, public image, funding, program evaluation and addressing the enormous problem of euthanasia of shelter animals. (National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, Statement on Keeping Statistics, http://petpopulation.org/keeping.html)
Experts and leaders in the animal welfare industry also agree that animal welfare’s lack of data collection, reporting and analysis are a serious hindrance. The lack of fundamental statistical information on the nature of animals entering and exiting shelters makes it difficult to plan programs and to evaluate their effectiveness. (Nasser & Fluke, 1991)
“Our inability to provide reasonably valid statistics makes it difficult to offer a credible presentation on the need for a concerted effort to deal with the issue [euthanasia of shelter animals], design initiatives to ameliorate the problem, or evaluate progress and performance of these efforts.” (Zawistowski et al., 1998)
Data is critical to decision making for nearly any industry. Epidemiology—or an empirical (versus theoretical) approach to understanding the complexities of disease and determining effective prevention, control and treatment in populations—is used extensively in national and international public health, human medicine, veterinary medicine and environmental protection. As the leading cause of untimely death for dogs and cats in the U.S., euthanasia of shelter dogs and cats calls for consistent, uniform collection and reporting of shelter data and an epidemiological approach to quantify, track and treat the problem.
While “there are few long-term individual shelter statistics or cross-sectional statistics for the nation as a whole,”(Zawistowski et al., 1998) the field has undertaken numerous efforts to address the need for sound data. Some are still in progress and have proven vital to the successful decrease of euthanasia in those programs. Others have not been maintained or have been limited in their efficacy due to lack of consistency, completeness or knowledge of how best to apply the information.
Some of the earliest data collection efforts were conducted by the American Humane Association which collected national shelter reporting statistics for 1985-1988 and 1990 (Nasser, Talboy & Moulton, 1992)
A number of regional efforts were conducted in the 1990s, including the California Sheltering Agencies Survey, 1991; the Iowa Federation of Humane Societies Animal Shelter Survey, 1992; and the Progressive Animal Welfare Society Report on Washington State Animal Shelter Statistics, 1994. (Zawistowski et al., 1998)
The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) was formed in 1993 to gather and analyze reliable data that further characterizes the number, origin and disposition of companion animals (dogs and cats) in the United States; to promote responsible stewardship of companion animals; and, based on data gathered, to recommend programs to reduce the number of surplus or unwanted pets in the nation. It is a coalition that represents a wide range of groups concerned with pet population issues.
Recognizing the need for broad stakeholder participation, NCPPSP original members were the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), American Humane Association (AHA), American Kennel Club (AKC), ASPCA, Association for Veterinary Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Cat Fanciers Association (CFA), The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), and National Animal Control Association (NACA). More recently, the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators (SAWA), American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), and the American Association of Feline Practitioners joined the NCPPSP, and the American Kennel Club (AKC) has left the organization.
NCPPSP undertook the largest data effort to date. Data from a national listing of more than 5,000 shelters was sought in each of four years. Due to low response rates, the results were not representative of the U.S. shelter population. However, overall trends for these results have provided useful insight into problem areas such as low return-to-owner rates and high euthanasia rates for cats.
A number of other developments show hopeful signs of progress toward shelter data collection and analysis, including:
The development and increase in the use of shelter software packages—from early and free programs to complex and web-based—which facilitate data collection and analysis for the individual user
The use of web-based animal placement platforms such as Petfinder.com and, more recently, PetTango.com
Licensing and microchipping, which are or can be linked to data management systems
The formation of local and regional coalition efforts to collect and share data among members. In addition to those previously cited, this includes efforts of the New Hampshire Federation of Humane Organizations dating back to 1990 and the Massachusetts Animal Coalition dating back to 1998
The bi-annual collection and publication of pet-related data undertaken by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) (since 1987) and the American Pet Products Association (APPA) (since 1988), which have created some significant benchmarks and other information helpful in understanding the comparative role of animal shelters
Publication of the International City/County Management Association Animal Control Management Guide (2001)
The formation and advancement of Shelter Veterinary Medicine and its reliance on epidemiology
The formation of the Asilomar Accords.
The ASPCA is a founding signatory to the Asilomar Accords, developed in August 2004 to express the shared mission of a group of national animal welfare industry leaders to collaborate with one another toward the common goal of significantly reducing the euthanasia of dogs and cats in this country. As a signatory to the Asilomar Accords, the ASPCA supports the full and open cooperation among agencies and the public in collecting and sharing animal sheltering data and statistics as a critically necessary step in the process of decreasing the numbers of at risk animals in a community. Guiding principles of the Accords—such as agreement to foster mutual respect for one another and a commitment to dialogue, analysis and potential modification of the vision as needs change and progress is made—will hopefully take the field an important step forward in promoting transparency and better assessing euthanasia rates.
While the Accords may be the single most widely used approach to data collection and reporting in the field today, the definitions and formulas for the Accords are inadequate for an epidemiological approach. The definitions of data categories may be altered at a shelter’s or community’s discretion. While this approach is potentially very useful for an agency or community to assess their own problems and progress, it renders the data unfit for any epidemiologic tally or comparison. Terms such as “treatable” and “unhealthy” without nationally agreed upon definitions cannot be used for comparison. Further, the Asilomar formula for “save rate” includes animals still housed in the shelter or in foster care, which could represent a large percentage of the population, making accurate comparisons difficult.
The ASPCA appreciates efforts to acknowledge the impact of larger, systemic and demographic issues on an organization’s or community’s relative success in saving the lives of shelter dogs and cats. However, we know of no other profession in which the collection of basic empirical data allows for variable definitions of data categories based on local or regional differences or preferences. Indeed, allowing such variation in data categories renders the composite data collected of little value to an epidemiological approach to euthanasia.
In 2010, after more than a century of animal sheltering, the best we can do is estimate that some number of millions of animals enters animal shelters every year and that some large percentage of these animals is euthanized. This is completely unacceptable.
The ASPCA strongly believes that the animal welfare community must clearly define our terms, and collect, report and compare shelter data using consistent, meaningful definitions and formulas. Without consistent, accurate data and transparency in the formulas used, our ability to clarify and quantify the problem and its causes and determine the most effective solutions is severely compromised. Millions of lives are at stake.
Risk factors for euthanasia are present in every community; however, the factors working for and against these problems are different in every community. The more accurate and consistent our data, the more effectively we can direct our services to those animals most at risk. That's why the ASPCA, in each community in which we work, uses the following hard data to identify specific risks and contributing factors and to craft appropriate strategies that will effectively reduce those risks: All Live Intake (including stray, owner relinquish and transfer), Adoptions, Return-to-Owner, Return to Field (for free roaming cats), Transfers, Euthanasia (owner requested and all other), TNR and other Targeted S/N. All data is broken out for dog and cat, and for neonate, juvenile and adult.
Based on our participation in numerous national coalitions focused on animal/shelter overpopulation issues; our work in shelter medicine, shelter research and as a major animal welfare grant maker; and our 100+ years as a direct service provider in New York City as well as our more recent direct participation in intensive, collaborative efforts with more than 10 ASPCA partner communities across the United States, the ASPCA has determined that a number of indicators should be tracked to understand progress in decreasing the number of animals at risk. These indicators include: Intake, Length of Stay, Euthanasia Rate and Live Release Rate (LRR), calculated as the percentage of animals who have a live outcome relative to the total intake of animals. The ASPCA’s calculation of LRR is the percentage of animals who leave the agency alive:
Total Live Outcomes
Total live outcomes include adoptions, return-to-owner (RTO), and transfers to outside agencies that guarantee adoption.
The ASPCA’s approach to data collection and reporting facilitates an epidemiologic approach to accurately compare program effect from shelter to shelter and community to community. This is crucial to identifying the best care for shelter animals and maximizing the likelihood that they will leave the shelter alive.
By focusing on animals in shelters as the at risk population, and using consistent and transparent terms, the numbers will not hide the lives at stake, but highlight them.
We cannot be casual or reticent about the collection, calculation and reporting of shelter statistics. We must examine our statistics without prejudice, always aware that they represent thousands of individual cats, dogs, puppies and kittens whose lives depend on us.
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