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Study: Number of Dogs in Shelters at All-Time Low?

Results from a study from Mississippi University College of Veterinary Medicine gives a better estimate about how many dogs are being taken in by shelters, adopted out, transferred and euthanized.


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A new study found that the number of dogs in U.S. shelters might be at an all-time low.

That’s thanks to researchers from the Mississippi University College of Veterinary Medicine, who used survey data and capture-recapture methodology to determine the number of dogs in U.S. animal shelters, as well as adoption rates, transfer rates and euthanasia rates. Kimberly Woodruff and David R. Smith, the lead researchers found that commonly cited numbers are off: They underestimate how dogs are taken in every year, and also overestimate how many dogs are euthanized. 

“For many years, people have quoted numbers of animals going in and out of shelters, but there’s never really been any research behind them,” Woodruff said. “Even beyond that, nobody really knows how many shelters are in the United States. There’s no official registry for shelters and no group providing oversight. Shelters can be anything from a few kennels to a huge facility that adopts out thousands of animals a year.”

To determine the correct figures, the researchers looked at shelters across the country. As MSU reports:

“Woodruff and Smith, with the help of the Social Science Research Center’s Wolfgang Frese Survey Research Laboratory, surveyed 413 animal shelters across the country. The survey was limited to brick-and-mortar shelters and those that adopt out dogs. They also compared animal shelter lists from different sources to estimate the number of shelters in the U.S. The survey results were extrapolated to create a nationwide picture of the movement of dogs into and out of shelters.
The study found that shelters take in 5.5 million dogs every year, 2.6 million dogs are adopted from shelters, 969,000 are returned to an owner, 778,000 are transferred and 776,000 are euthanized.”

The Pet Leadership Council (PLC), who funded the study, were thrilled with the results.

“When you consider that it’s estimated as many as 20 million dogs were euthanized a year in the 1970s, it’s truly astounding to see how effective the efforts of shelters and the responsible pet industry have proven,” said PLC Chairman Bob Vetere in a press release. “We believe this new research demonstrating the progress we have made will inspire an increasingly strong demand for and focus on efforts to ensure responsible breeding and opportunity to meet the growing desire for dogs in our country.”

Woodruff said the study puts “quality science behind shelter population estimates.” Smith noted that the data can help researchers and studies create animal health policy, too. 

“For example, there are a lot of dogs moving out of the Southeast and into other regions,” Smith said. “Well, this is a highly endemic heartworm disease area, we possibly could be transporting heartworms across the country. That means we need to do due diligence to control that disease. We may need to ask those shelters about how they’re addressing heartworm disease and other regional diseases.”

Mike Bober, president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council and consultant to the PLC said the data will impact the conversation on responsible pet ownership. “Without this concrete data as a starting point, it has been all but impossible to discuss solutions because we couldn’t agree on the scope of the problem. This data also provides valuable information for those contemplating legislation that impacts the availability of dogs in their communities.”

The results of the MSU study were presented at this year's North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) Conference in Orlando, Fla. You can see a PDF of the presentation here.

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