Are Animal Shelter Outcomes Improving?

March 20, 2017

ASPCA volunteer holding a cat

By Matt Bershadker, ASPCA CEO

There are thousands of animal shelters and rescue organizations around the country dedicated to the welfare of vulnerable dogs and cats. And while each life saved is a victory unto itself, it’s crucial that our work is measured quantitatively as well as qualitatively. Our cause is too important to not be constantly analyzing data in search of ways to increase our impact, which is why the ASPCA has always relied on research as a foundation for our work.

In keeping with that philosophy, we recently analyzed nationwide shelter data with the goal of identifying trends related to the number of dogs and cats entering U.S. shelters as well as their range of outcomes. The statistics we compiled provide a sharper look at where we are in the effort to save and protect the millions of dogs and cats taken in by shelters each year, how far we’ve come, and what we need to do next.

I’m happy to report that the news is encouraging, our progress is strong, but our continuing obligations and opportunities are also very clear.

By the Numbers

Our report reveals:

  • Approximately 6.5 million companion animals entered U.S. animal shelters in 2016, a decrease from 7.2 million in 2011.
  • An estimated 1.5 million companion animals were euthanized in U.S. animal shelters in 2016, a decrease from about 2.6 million in 2011.
  • An estimated 3.2 million shelter animals were adopted in 2016 (1.6 million dogs and 1.6 million cats), up from 2.7 million adoptions in 2011. That reflects an 18.5 percent increase in national adoptions.

Understanding what policies and social dynamics drove these improvements is just as important as acknowledging them. Dr. Emily Weiss, our Vice President of Research & Development who oversaw the research, attributes the positive trend to factors including:

  • Fewer financial restrictions and other barriers for adopters  
  • Easier community access to affordable spay/neuter services
  • Increased numbers of lost animals reunited with their owners
  • More widespread awareness that shelter animals make loving and loyal pets

It’s important to see this trend not as a fixed accomplishment, but as a sign that we’re moving in the right direction. So it should motivate us to redouble—not relax—efforts to advance adoption, fostering, shelter support, and programs that help families and their pets stay together. 

These critical efforts include support from municipal governments, who have the ability and responsibility to assist community animals by funding local services and facilities.

Getting to Zero Is Unrealistic

Though there’s plenty of rhetoric around the idea of reducing euthanasia and intake rates to an absolute zero, there will unfortunately always be dogs and cats too sick or injured to have an acceptable quality of life, or who exhibit such extreme aggression that they are too dangerous to place in a home. These injuries and aggression are often caused by cruelty and neglect.

Pushing unrealistic goals is not only misguided; it’s counterproductive, setting up struggling shelters and rescue organizations for destructive criticism when what they and their animals need most is constructive support and resources.

To bring down the number of hard-to-adopt animals at risk of euthanasia, we’re exploring innovative programs that rehabilitate abused and neglected animals, as well as continuing our strong opposition to breed-specific legislation that unfairly limits animals’ chances at adoption.

More Obstacles and Opportunities

While these overall trends are encouraging, our research also shows clear regional disparities, specifically in parts of the South and West. We’ve been addressing this challenge by relocating animals from areas of overcrowding to locales where certain types of dogs and cats are in short supply, improving their chances of adoption. The ASPCA now has three targeted routes—on the West Coast, Midwest and East Coast—through which it has transported over 25,000 dogs and cats since 2014 and will move an additional 28,000 in 2017.

We also see more cats than dogs euthanized in shelters. This reinforces the need for cat owners to provide their pets with I.D. collars and microchips so those animals can be returned home if lost. We also encourage support for local trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs that reduce the size of community cat colonies.

One of the greatest areas of opportunity isn’t about what happens inside a shelter, but outside it. Past research conducted by the ASPCA shows that offering low or no-cost services to disadvantaged pet owners effectively keeps at-risk dogs and cats in their homes. ASPCA “safety net” programs like these are underway in parts of Los Angeles and New York City, and plans are in place to expand these services to high-need communities in Miami.

These services, designed to keep animals out of shelters in the first place, represent a commitment to addressing the causes of animal homelessness and suffering, not just its consequences. When communities focus on ways to keep pets in the safe and loving homes they have, more animals will be saved from suffering, and more room will be available at local shelters for other pets in need.

Finally, we need to end the individual and organized cruelty that puts many of these animals in peril even after their rescue. This includes active support for laws and regulations that fight puppy mills and dog fighting, as well as criminal sentences that match the nature of animal cruelty crimes committed.

Maintaining Our Commitment

We are thrilled to see the downward trend in euthanasia, but that doesn’t mean we should cut back efforts or weaken our resolve to help vulnerable animals in our communities. The fact is, too many of them are still in crisis—whether in a crowded shelter, a financially-challenged home, or an abusive or unsafe environment. And helping them is not just the job of rescuers, advocates, and local leaders; it’s the job of all of us.

So please support animal welfare organizations and advocates in your community—including shelters, veterinarians, and local rescue groups—and ask how you too can be part of the solution.