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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

The Coming Shelter Dog Shortage – Part II

In my last blog post I discussed the fact that some parts of the country already have a shortage of shelter dogs, and observed that if trends continue we will have a nationwide shortage of shelter dogs in the not-too-distant future. What are the numbers to back that up?

The HSUS estimates that we currently have an intake of about 7 million animals per year into shelters nationwide. Since the year 2000, shelter intake has been fairly stable in spite of a rapidly growing human population. Shelter outcomes include about 3.5 million adoptions and 2.7 million killings of healthy or treatable cats and dogs per year.  If we assume that half of the total 6.2 million adoption and euthanasia outcomes are dogs (in reality dogs are likely to be less than half, since the return-to-owner rate is much higher for dogs), that is about 3.1 million dogs per year who are in the shelter system and looking for homes. That means we would need a total of, at most, 3.1 million dog adoptions in 2015 to zero out shelter killing of healthy or treatable shelter dogs — i.e., to make demand meet supply.

In 2013, Colorado shelters were able to adopt out 10.5 dogs per 1000 people. The United States currently has a population of about 320 million people. If Colorado’s adoption rate could be replicated in the United States as a whole in 2015, shelters would adopt out 3.4 million dogs. That is more than the supply of about 3.1 million healthy or treatable shelter dogs that will be available for adoption in 2015.

Colorado had an overall live release rate of 89% in 2013. Right now Colorado is ahead of the pack with its live release rate, but the rest of the country is catching up at a very rapid clip. Big metro areas that are now over 80% include Seattle, Portsmouth, San Francisco, Washington DC, Atlanta, Richmond, Denver, Austin, Salt Lake City, Jacksonville, and Fairfax County in Virginia. New York City is close to 80%. Big cities that are making rapid strides include San Antonio and Tampa. Entire states in the northeast are at No Kill, including New Hampshire and (by estimate) Maine and Vermont. No Kill is happening much faster than most people think, and I would be surprised if the majority of the United States population is not living in a No Kill city within 5 years.

Given these statistics, it’s very reasonable to conclude that we will have a shelter dog shortage in the United States in 5 years or less.

A comment to my previous post suggested that demographic changes in the United States, specifically the aging of the population, might reduce the number of future adoptive homes for shelter dogs. That is possible, but it seems unlikely. According to surveys done by the American Pet Products Association, the number of owned dogs has been trending up since 1988, the number of households owning dogs has gone up in all but one measurement period since 1988, and 35% of people who acquire a dog obtain it from a shelter, rescue group, or by adoption (not purchase) at a pet store venue. The Pew Research Center has projected that population growth in the United States will continue to be strong between now and 2050, with most of the growth coming from immigration. Although the population over age 65 will continue to grow, that segment will be only 19% of total population by 2050. I think the combination of the continued growth of the human population, combined with the continued popularity of dog ownership and adoption as a means of pet acquisition, means that the outlook for growth in the number of adoptions is bright.

How bad will the shelter dog shortage be? The projected population of the United States for 2020 is 337 million. At a rate of 10.5 dog adoptions per 1000 people per year, that would mean 3,538,000 shelter dogs would be needed to supply the demand 5 years from now. While the demand for shelter dogs will be going up, though, supply will be going down. No Kill cities reduce intake with pet retention and spay-neuter programs, and further reduce the number of impounded animals needing adoption by increasing return-to-owner and return-to-field numbers dramatically. Effective pet retention programs can reduce owner surrenders by one-third, and effective return-to-owner programs can increase dog reclaims to 60% or more of strays. If No Kill continues to spread, it is not at all outside the bounds of possibility that the number of shelter dogs needing adoption will be less than 2 million in 2020. Indeed, the number could be even less if spay-neuter programs further decrease intake.

At that point we would be short at least 1.5 million shelter dogs each year to meet the demand for adoption. We don’t want those 1.5 million dogs in 2020 to be acquired from commercial breeders, which is why we need to start thinking now about how to supply that demand.

So what could go wrong? One way for this projection to fail would be if the No Kill momentum that is currently sweeping the country stalls. No Kill right now is a juggernaut, though, and I cannot imagine it stalling anytime soon. A more likely possible roadblock to continuing increases in pet ownership is the cost of pet maintenance. With incomes stagnant and veterinary costs seemingly increasing rapidly, it may be possible that some people who want to acquire pets in the future will decide not to due to costs. However, if costs do become a significant factor in the decision to acquire a pet it will hurt shelters less than commercial dog breeders. Adopting a dog from a shelter is much cheaper than buying one from a breeder, and No Kill shelters offer support systems for owners who are having trouble paying for pet food or veterinary care.

A nationwide shortage of adoptable dogs is not something that animal shelters in the United States have ever faced. When people have thought about No Kill for dogs, they have thought about getting to a 90% or better live release rate. Now we need to start thinking beyond that to the entire market for dogs. What place do animal shelters want to have in the dog market of the future?


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