By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
U.S. animal shelters take in about 3.3 million dogs and 3.2 million cats every year. The majority of them enter shelters as homeless strays, picked up by animal control or good Samaritans.1 While some of these animals may be feral dogs, many are pets that were either lost or abandoned. Shelter workers then have the task of trying to reunite lost pets with their owners, housing the pet until an owner appears or putting the pet up for adoption.
There is typically a mandatory time period that a shelter must hold an animal before making any of these decisions, including making them available for adoption, transferring them to a different shelter or, in some cases, euthanizing them. The hold time can vary from as little as 24 hours to as long as 10 days, which is why it’s so important to call local animal shelters right away if your pet is lost.
In some cases, stray animals are able to be reunited with their families, but in others they end up languishing in shelters. The longer an animal sits in such a facility, the lower his chances of finding a new forever home becomes, in part because the stress of being in a shelter can, understandably, cause personality changes and behavioral problems.
"They become even less adoptable if they sit in a shelter for too long because that starts to make them go a little bit stir crazy so it's important to get them out of a shelter into a home," Tammy Flanagan of the East Greenwich Animal Protection League in Rhode Island told NBC 10 News.2 This is why Rhode Island passed a bill in September 2017 to allow abandoned animals in animal shelters to be placed in new forever homes more quickly.
Rhode Island Passes New Law to Protect Abandoned Animals
The bill, which is an amendment to an animal abandonment statute, states that an animal wearing identification that is impounded by a pound or animal shelter will be considered abandoned if he is not redeemed by his owner within 10 days.
If no identification is on the animal, he will be considered abandoned after five days at the shelter. Once the animal has been deemed abandoned, the owner loses all rights to the animal, which instead becomes the “property” of the animal shelter and may therefore be put up for adoption.
The bill is intended to protect animals from unfit owners while getting them into loving homes faster, as most caring pet owners would be frantically calling area animal shelters if their dog or cat had gone missing. If they haven’t come to claim their pet within five to 10 days, there’s a strong probability that they never intend to. Deputy Majority Leader William O’Brien, who sponsored the bill, told NBC 10 News:
"Now that dog is in a home, adopted, you have no rights to it, that why we need it because dogs were considered property, same thing as a diamond ring, same thing as a camera … Remember it has to be in a pound, right, or animal shelter; ‘how did you not check your local animal shelter?’ I would check every shelter in the state.’”3
For their part, the animal shelter must also make a prompt and reasonable attempt to find the animal’s owner during the hold period, the bill states.
For instance, a shelter may post a found ad or monitor lost pet ads in the area. Once that occurs, and the hold period expires, the animal is free to be placed in a new home. To put this in perspective, of the approximately 6.5 million pets who end up in U.S. animal shelters every year, the ASPCA states that about 710,000 who enter as strays end up being returned to their owners. Another 3.2 million are adopted into new homes while 1.5 million are euthanized.4
Why Are Pets Abandoned?
There are many different motivations for abandoning a pet, whether that be by releasing it outdoors or dropping it off at a shelter. Among owners who surrender their pets to shelters, family changes such as divorce or death, home foreclosure, economic problems or minor behavioral issues are commonly given reasons as to why.5 In a study published in Open Journal of Animal Sciences, the most common reasons given were related to problems with the pets themselves, followed by family situations and housing issues.6
Reasons also varied depending on individual circumstances. For instance, housing issues were the most common reason for owner surrenders among people living in rental housing, while for people of lower income, costs and housing issues were the most-cited reasons. Speaking with news outlet The Dodo, Emily Weiss, vice president of research and development for the ASPCA, pointed out an example of when owner surrender is the most humane choice:
"When you have to make a choice between feeding your children and the medical care for your pet, that person's actually doing the very best that they can [by surrendering the pet to a shelter]. They're actually putting a dog or cat's welfare ahead of their own heart."7
There are, of course, times when a reason is just an excuse, and the owner is giving up their pet because they simply got bored of him or no longer wish to take care of him. In many cases, however, the Open Journal of Animal Sciences study suggests that interventions could help some pets stay with their owners, particularly when finances are the problem. When researchers asked pet owners with incomes lower than $50,000 which services would help them to keep their pets, they noted:8
Free or low-cost training or behavior help
Access to pet-friendly housing
Free or low-cost spay/neuter services
Free or low-cost pet food
Free or low-cost temporary pet care or boarding
Assistance in paying pet deposits for housing
Resources to Help Keep Pets With Their Families
If you’re considering giving up your pet due to economic reasons, there are resources that may help. ASPCA’s “Safety Net” program, for instance, is in place at certain Los Angeles, California shelters. When owners come in to surrender their pets, the program may be able to intervene by providing supplies, veterinary care and other services that allow the pets to stay with their families. ASPCA described one success story as such:9
“L.A. County resident, Jaquelina, … couldn’t afford to license her family’s two dogs – Pelucas and Lucas. As a result, she was fined by animal control, adding yet another expense, another challenge, to her ownership … Jaquelina had no alternatives, and reluctantly brought the dogs to the … shelter to surrender them. But our safety net team … intervened, providing Jaquie with a voucher to cover the cost of licensing the two dogs.”
Other options may also be available, such as low-cost veterinary clinics or visiting a food bank for pets. Inevitably, even with resources in place, some pets will still end up being abandoned at shelters, which is why the Rhode Island law may be beneficial by allowing them to be put up for adoption sooner. And for stray pets who end up in shelters, the sooner they can find a loving, forever home, the better.