New Study Examines Why Some People Don't Have Pets

Grieving Family Over a Lost Pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • The American Humane Association has completed phase I of a three-part study on pet ownership. The goal of the study is to help find families for more homeless pets, and to help those pets remain in their new homes forever.
  • Phase I of the study examined the reasons people don’t own a dog or cat. One surprising result from the survey of 1,500 previous pet owners was that 20 percent were still dealing with the grief of losing a prior pet, which prevented them from getting another four-legged companion.
  • Results from phase I indicate pet advocacy groups need to address general negative attitudes toward cats, focus cat adoption strategies on the people most open to owning a kitty, and better understand the role grief plays as a barrier to future pet ownership.

By Dr. Becker

The American Humane Association's Animal Welfare Research Institute is in the process of conducting a three-part study to learn more about pet ownership and why some people have pets while others don't.

The goal of the study -- funded by PetSmart Charities and called Keeping Pets (Dogs and Cats) in Homes: A Three-Phase Retention Study -- is to develop more effective strategies for insuring homeless animals get adopted and that those adoptions "stick."

The American Humane Association believes the first step in developing better strategies to increase pet ownership and minimize the number of homeless dogs and cats is to understand why people do and don't own a pet. Phase I of the study, titled Reasons for Not Owning a Dog or Cat, is complete.

Why Some People Don't Own Pets

In February 2012, researchers used an on-line survey to collect data from 1,500 people without pets who either once owned or never owned a dog or cat. Some explanations survey respondents gave were predictable: "Pets cost too much money," or "I don't have time," or "I'm allergic to cats."

But the researchers were taken aback to learn nearly 20 percent of prior pet owners said they didn't have a new dog or cat because they were still suffering the loss of a previous pet.

"Clearly, the human-animal bond is strong and our profession needs to help owners celebrate a prior pet--allowing them to take the next step to future ownership," says Patricia Olson, DVM, chief veterinary advisor for the American Humane Association.

Study Results Indicate Cats are Less Popular than Dogs

Some non-pet owners surveyed admitted they simply dislike companion animals, including over a third who want nothing to do with cats. The anti-cat theme crossed over to both previous pet owners and those who had never had a pet.

Among previous pet owners, 45 percent of those who had a dog would consider getting another pet, while only 34 percent of previous cat owners would. Of the respondents who had never owned a pet, 25 percent were open to considering a dog, but only 10 percent would consider a kitty.

According to Dr. Olson, young, single 18 to 34 year-olds are the group most open to cat ownership. Given this new information, "We need to consider new strategies for cats," Olson says.

A 2011 study by the CATalyst Council identified a need for feline-friendly education and training for both pet owners and veterinary staff to increase the level of care kitties receive.

Other Findings from the Study

  • The longer a person waits after the death of a pet, the less likely he or she is to get a new dog or cat.
  • 53 percent of previous dog owners and 49 percent of previous cat owners said the pet had been with them over 10 years.
  • Only 10 percent of previous dog owners and 12 percent of previous cat owners said they had given away or sold their dog or cat. Reasons given were housing restrictions, allergies, pet behavior problems, lack of time to care for a pet, and death or divorce.
  • Only 22 percent of previous dog owners and 18 percent of previous cat owners obtained their pet from a shelter or rescue organization.
  • Interestingly, however, 64 percent of previous/prospective dog owners and 56 percent of previous/prospective cat owners said they would adopt their next pet from a shelter or rescue.
  • People over age 65 were least likely to consider a pet, including 60 percent of previous dog owners and 66 percent of previous cat owners.
  • Among people over 65 who never owned a pet, over 90 percent had no intention of getting one.

What the Researchers Concluded from Phase I of the Study

First and foremost, shelter staffs, rescue organizations and other pet advocates need to figure out how to address negative attitudes toward cats, and they need to focus cat adoption strategies on younger prospective owners.

They must also better understand grief over the loss of a pet as a barrier to new pet ownership, and work to reduce existing obstacles to pet ownership such as housing restrictions and financial constraints.

Phase II of the study will look at how many pets adopted from shelters are still in their new homes 6 months later, and if not, what happened to them. Phase III will test practical strategies for improving opportunities for adopted pets to remain with their new families forever.

If you'd like to learn more about Phase I of the study, the full report can be found here.