Companion Animal Overpopulation Crisis
It is a sad fact of life in our society that millions of “surplus” cats, dogs and other domesticated animals have no place to call home. The kennels and cages of America’s animal shelters are filled to capacity with these abandoned, lost and unwanted creatures. New strays and discarded family companions arrive continuously, yet there is not nearly enough space for them all so their stay must be short as they await an uncertain fate.
It is estimated that between six and eight million cats and dogs enter animal shelters every year in the United States, but only about half of them make it out alive.(1) Those who are reclaimed by their guardians or adopted into someone’s home are the lucky ones. Animals who remain when the short holding period expires are unceremoniously euthanized to make room for others who are also in desperate need.
Every animal’s life has value, and each cat or dog is a unique, irreplaceable individual with needs and feelings. The fact that most are healthy and affectionate when they are killed makes their deaths all the more unnecessary and poignant. Such is the seemingly never-ending tragedy and heartrending reality of the companion animal overpopulation crisis.
The Causes of Overpopulation
The problem of overpopulation is not the result of one cause but many. Some of the key reasons why millions of cats and dogs are put to death every year are as follows:
Biology – Humans domesticated cats and dogs tens of thousands of years ago by taking them out of their natural habitat and selectively breeding them, changing the very course of their evolution in the process.(2) Dogs and cats are not native to most of the areas they now occupy, so their reproduction remains relatively unchecked by natural predators or environmental conditions, especially when under human protection. At the same time, their breeding frequency and litter sizes have remained the same as they were millions of years ago. For instance, a single female cat can have three litters a year with an average of five kittens per litter. In only seven years, she and her offspring could potentially produce 420,000 cats. In just six years, one female dog and her brood can produce as many as 67,000 puppies.(3)
Commercial breeding – Every year, commercial breeders deliberately bring millions of animals into an already overpopulated world to sell them for profit. Driven by marketplace demand, they provide “purebred” cats and dogs to people who often want them as status symbols or because they believe they are genetically superior to mixed-breeds. Some “purebred” dogs come from puppy mills that mass-produce animals in squalid conditions and sell them in pet stores. Many more dogs are procured from pet stores or breeders than are adopted from shelters.(4) Tragically, every purchased animal represents one less home for an animal in a shelter who will die for lack of a guardian. In addition, purebred dogs often wind up in shelters after their guardians no longer want them, compounding animal homelessness. Approximately one-quarter of the dogs in shelters are purebreds who were originally purchased and then abandoned.(5)
Lost and abandoned animals – One out of every five animal companions becomes lost at some point in their lives. Of these, only 16% of dogs and about 2% of cats are ever recovered by their guardians.(6) Many of these losses could be prevented if guardians had put collars with ID tags on their animals or had identification microchips permanently implanted under their skin. Animals who are not claimed go up for adoption, but they may not be fortunate enough to find another home in time to meet the deadline. Meanwhile, lost animals take up precious shelter space that is needed for truly homeless dogs and cats. Other dogs and cats are deliberately abandoned by their guardians to fend for themselves in the wild or on the streets. Most animals who are not taken in by someone or brought to a shelter starve or freeze to death, die from illness or get run over by cars.(7)
Social attitudes – Most guardians deeply love their animal companions as members of their families and would never dream of giving them up for any reason. On the other hand, there are still many people who are not prepared to provide lifetime homes for the animals they purchase or adopt. Over 30% of the animals who wind up in shelters are surrendered by their guardians, who, for whatever reason, are either unable or unwilling to care for them anymore.(8) People’s readiness to dispose of animals as though they are old possessions they no longer want reflects a lack of empathy for living beings whose lives literally depend on their caretakers’ decisions. It also points to a larger systemic problem in the way animals are defined legally; that is, as property. As long as animals are considered objects under the law that can be discarded at the “owner’s” whim, many people will think of them as such, and living creatures will continue to pay the cost with their very lives.
The Solution: What You Can Do
Each year, about 25 million puppies and kittens are born in the U.S., far exceeding the number of available homes and overcrowding our nation’s shelter system.(9) Given that America’s approximately 4,000 shelters have very limited resources, they have little choice but to euthanize many of the animals dropped on their doorstep.(10) Nevertheless, as a society we have the ability and the obligation to meet the moral challenge of reducing the number of needless animal deaths, and each individual can make a difference. Here’s how:
Spay and neuter animal companions – Sterilizing dogs and cats drastically reduces the number of puppies and kittens born so that shelters can care for and place those that are already here in loving homes. Please spay and neuter your animal companions to reduce overpopulation and urge others to do the same.
Adopt animals from shelters – If you have room in your home and your heart for an animal companion, save a life by adopting one from your local shelter. Never buy animals from a breeder or pet store. If you are absolutely determined to have a particular breed dog or cat, please adopt one from a shelter or qualified rescue organization.
Keep animal companions safe – Put collars and ID tags on your animal friends so you can get them back if they get lost. Ask your veterinarian to implant a microchip under their skin for permanent identification. Also try to prevent your dog or cat from getting lost in the first place by securing your house or yard. Consider keeping cats inside, as indoor cats have much longer lifespans on average than outdoor cats.
(2) Karen E. Lang, “From Wolf to Woof,” National Geographic 2001.
(4) Lisa Osburn, “3 key Jefferson, Shelby shelters euthanized almost 20,000 dogs and cats in 2005 Tougher shelter spay, neuter laws proposed,” The Birmingham News 2006.
(6) Leigh, Diane and Geyer, Marilee, One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter, Santa Cruz, CA: No Voice Unheard, 2003.
(8) Leigh, Diane and Geyer, Marilee, One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter, Santa Cruz, CA: No Voice Unheard, 2003.