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What's Behind the Massive Decline in Pet Euthanasia Rates?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog shelter

Story at-a-glance -

  • Animal shelters in the U.S. have made great strides in handling pet overpopulation and the resulting euthanasia that once was the norm in many animal shelters
  • As recently as the 1960s, 25% of dogs — both owned and unowned — roamed the streets, and 10- to 20-fold more dogs were euthanized in shelters, compared to 2018
  • An analysis by The New York Times used data from animal shelters in the 20 largest cities in the U.S. and found that since 2009, euthanasia rates in such shelters have declined by more than 75%
  • Changes in attitudes toward pets, increased animal adoption rates and concerted efforts by shelters have all contributed to lowering the number of animals euthanized in shelters

Although challenges remain, the U.S. has made great strides in handling pet overpopulation and the resulting euthanasia that once was the norm in many animal shelters. As recently as the 1960s, 25% of dogs — both owned and unowned — roamed the streets, and 10- to 20-fold more dogs were euthanized in shelters, compared to 2018.1

By 1973, the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) estimated that about 20% of the pet population, or about 13.5 million animals, were euthanized while 25% of dogs were still roaming the streets.2 Since then, changes in attitudes toward pets along with concerted efforts by shelters have radically affected the number of animals euthanized in shelters, with many now able to be adopted or returned to their owners instead.

Pet Euthanasia Rates Decline by 75% in Big City Animal Shelters

An analysis by The New York Times used data from animal shelters in the 20 largest cities in the U.S., including Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and New York. The analysis found that overall, since 2009, euthanasia rates in such shelters have declined by more than 75%.

Rates in each city also declined from 2012 to 2018. During that time, euthanasia rates for dogs and cats in Houston area shelters declined from 51% to 15%, for instance, while rates in San Antonio dropped from 38% to 8%.3

Differing rates among shelters occur due to different animal intake rates and other circumstances. For instance, the Times reported a case in 2015 in which New York City shelters had to take in 176 ill pet rabbits; most of them were rescued or adopted.4 It’s believed that the number of stray animals finding their way into shelters has declined significantly since the 1970s due to increased spaying and neutering efforts.

However, changing attitudes have also played a part. Richard Avanzino, an activist behind the “no-kill” movement for adoptable animals, told the Times, “They’re family members on four legs … Society is no longer willing to say, ‘Well, there’s just too many animals and not enough homes.’”5

Pet Adoption Rates Rise

Across the U.S., the number of animals adopted from shelters and rescues has increased in the last 10 years. In the journal Animals, researchers pointed to a “cultural shift” as partly responsible for driving this change:6

“We conclude that the cultural shift in how society and pet owners relate to dogs has produced positive shelter trends beyond the decline in intake. The increased level of control and care dog owners provide to their dogs, as well as the increasing perception of dogs as family members, are all indicators of the changing human-dog relationship in the U.S.”

Some innovative animal shelters, like Gigi's Shelter for Dogs in Ohio, are helping the problem one dog at a time by acting as a pit stop for dogs to help get them ready for adoption. Gigi’s goal is to shelter 1,500 rural dogs in its first year, helping to dramatically reduce the time the dogs spend without a home.

The premise is simple: take dogs from shelters that are overwhelmed with animals and move them to those with empty kennels and greater resources, which are typically those found near high-population areas — locales with a large pool of adopters looking for a furry friend to add to their family.

The stop at Gigi’s state-of-the-art facility is the icing on the cake, as there the dogs receive medical care and behavioral evaluations to ensure they’re ready for adoption.7 Plans are underway to create similar transitional shelters across the U.S.

Other projects include creating animal shelters in prime locations in the heart of communities, as building a shelter in a visible location can double adoptions.8 Another strategy aims to create “real-life” rooms within existing shelters, where animals can get a reprieve from the chaos, helping them to relax and show their true personalities, which can increase their chances of being adopted.

No-Kill for Pets in Animal Shelters by 2025

While great strides have been made in reducing the number of animals being euthanized by shelters, there’s still work to be done. Nearly 2,000 dogs and cats are still killed daily in the U.S. because they don’t have a home.9 Best Friends Animal Society has started the Save Them All campaign, which aims to achieve no-kill for all dogs and cats in U.S. shelters, defined as a 90% save rate, by 2025.

Overall, the U.S. has a 76.6% save rate and 4,700 no-kill communities, but while 5.3 million cats and dogs entered shelters, only 4.1 million were saved, which means 733,000 were euthanized.10

On an individual level, you can get involved by adopting one of the many shelter animals in search of a loving, forever home. If you can’t adopt an animal, fostering a homeless pet will also help immensely, as fostered animals are better prepared for adoption. You can also encourage your local officials to create humane no-kill shelters for animals in your community, and donate what you can, such as dog toys, dog food and blankets.