According to studies by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, the most common reasons people give up their animals to shelters are:
- Unwanted births--especially among cats
- Behavior problems
- Lifestyle problems such as moving or landlord issues
How can you make sure that your pets do not end up contributing to the homeless animal problem in the United States? My top four recommendations are:
Before you adopt
Make sure your pet is a good fit for you and your lifestyle. Think about whether you are ready for the financial and logistical commitments of owning a pet. Before you begin, check your lease, homeowners insurance and any regulations that might apply to be sure the pet will be allowed.
Sit down and honestly assess yourself and your family to decide what kind of animal would be the best choice. How much time will you have to spend with the pet? Would a busy, active pet fit in best with your household, or would you be more comfortable with a couch potato type? Do you want a very affectionate animal, or would you prefer a less needy pet? What are the predictable expenses and responsibilities of keeping that type of animal? For example, will the animal need regular professional grooming?
It is best to have a pretty good idea of what is right for you before you go out looking for a pet to prevent spur-of-the-moment decisions that might not work out well long term. A good fit between pet and family personalities makes for an easy, harmonious household. A bad fit--even between a great pet and a great family--can be hard on all concerned. In the worst case, this conflict leads to the animal being surrendered to a shelter.
Soon after adoption
Act early and often to prevent behavior problems or nip them in the bud. Behavioral problems are the most common reason for dogs to be given up to a shelter, and the second most common reason that cats are surrendered. The first step in preventing behavior problems is to find a pet that fits with your life as described above. A bouncy, active young Labrador mix in a quiet household will be more likely to develop behavior problems than an older, smaller, mixed-breed animal in the same home.
In addition, obedience training and early socialization is a must for dogs.
For cats, keeping the litter box clean, making sure there are enough litter pans for the house (number of cats plus one) and staying on top of urinary tract health will help prevent house soiling, one of the most common behavioral reasons cats end up in shelters.
If you are having a behavior problem with your pet, seek assistance from a qualified trainer or veterinary behaviorist well before you are at the end of your rope. There is help out there, including the resources of the Behavior Service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital in Davis and the UC Veterinary Medical Center - San Diego.
Sooner than you might think
Get cats spayed and neutered! The most common reason for cats to end up in shelters is that there are simply too many. Feline overpopulation continues to cost millions of cats their lives. One reason for so many unwanted litters is the fact that cats can breed starting at a very early age. Female cats can get pregnant when they are as young as four months old - when they are still kittens themselves. Many studies have demonstrated the safety of spaying and neutering cats as young as eight weeks old. So please, don't risk an accidental litter. If your cat was not already altered at the time of adoption, talk to your veterinarian about getting this done as soon as possible, and keep your cat strictly indoors in the meantime.
Always, always, always
An ID tag is one of the cheapest life-saving devices available. Keep current identification on your pet. Make sure that if your pet escapes, it can easily be returned to you. Even if your pet rarely leaves the house, it is wise to expect the unexpected. Every natural disaster is followed by a flood of displaced pets--many have no identification tags.
Ideally, your pet should wear an easily visible tag at all times that includes your address and a phone number where you can always be reached. A cell phone number is often ideal in case your pet escapes while you are traveling. Remember that rabies tags and licenses often do not include your phone number, which may delay the return of your pet.
Helpful tip: If your pet tends to damage dangly tags or the sound drives you crazy, you can get collar-plates or even get your phone number embroidered on the collar. You can also purchase temporary tags for when your pet is staying at a pet-sitter, when you are traveling, or when you move to a new home. These are the times when your pet is most likely to get disoriented and lost, so it is especially important to have current information on the tag at such times.
A microchip is an excellent back-up ID system. This is a tiny computer chip inserted under the animal's skin. It can be read by scanners available at most animal shelters and veterinary clinics. Even animals that can't wear collars and tags can get microchips, from horses to parrots. I can't tell you how often shelters hear about lost animals that had just had their collar removed for a bath at the time they escaped. If the animal has a microchip, it can still be quickly re-united with its owner.
We at the Shelter Medicine Program aim to improve the quality of life of animals at shelters through management of disease, behavior and other factors. Keeping your animal out of an animal shelter also reduces the burden on shelters everywhere.
Kate Hurley, DVM, is the director of the Shelter Medicine Program
at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Read more about the Shelter Medicine Program in the Center for Companion Animal Health Update