Best Friends Blog

Is pet overpopulation a myth?

There is a bit of a flap in the world of animal rescue about the claim by some that pet overpopulation is a myth. These are fighting words for many who labor in the trenches and especially to those who champion pet population reduction via wide-ranging spay/neuter programs. Spay/neuter is the point of the spear in our collective efforts to end shelter killing.

How can pet overpopulation be a myth when more than 9,000 dogs and cats die in shelters every day for lack of homes? Good question.

There are not enough homes! There are plenty of homes! THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH HOMES! THERE ARE PLENTY OF HOMES!

And so it goes.

Given the task at hand, this argument is really a waste of time and energy, but here’s the gist of it, in case you need a refresher.

The pet overpopulation myth busters point out that the annual demand for the acquisition of new pets has been running at about 17 million per year, according to the folks who do market research for pet supply manufacturers. About 20-25 percent of those new pets will come via adoption. That leaves about 12 million slots to fill. Upwards of four million shelter pets are killed annually. If every one of those shelter pets found their way into a new home, there would still be an unmet demand for about eight million pets every year, and hence no overpopulation problem.

The challenge, according to this logic, is better marketing of shelter pets both by the shelters themselves and by rescue groups, which serve as halfway houses for shelter animals. All that is needed to end the killing of dogs and cats is to up our market share of new pet acquisitions.

OK, fair enough, but the shelter door swings both ways. We should be as concerned about reducing the number of “noses in” (decreasing the number of pets entering shelters) as we are about increasing the number of “noses out” (by ramping up adoption to this annual market of people acquiring a new pet).

Why do we need to be concerned about reducing “noses in” if there are plenty of homes? Because the overly simplified market analysis above omits an important business principle. When you have a surplus inventory of any product, you reduce production so that you don’t have surplus inventory sitting on loading docks and in warehouses waiting for sales to catch up. In this case, the surplus inventory comprises dogs and cats (who have a relatively short shelf life) sitting in crowded shelters.

If we want to apply a supply and demand model to the business of no-kill, we should not only increase sales (adoptions), we should reduce production.

Lowering production to reduce the number of “noses in” is achieved by economically targeted spay/neuter programs, disruption of the puppy mill supply chain and shelter surrender intervention programs (helping folks who are planning to surrender a pet to the shelter to keep that pet instead).The idea that there is a large enough pool of potential adopters to absorb the current shelter population should in no way devalue the importance of low-cost spay/neuter services, trap/neuter/return (TNR) programs, shelter surrender intervention or any of the various strategies available to reduce inventory as we crank up adoptions. Even the most ardent myth busters are quick to vouch for the importance of spay/neuter.

What these numbers tell us is that our goals are achievable and, given the task before us, we need every tool in the toolbox used to the max — both those to increase “noses out” and those used to reduce the numbers of “noses in.”

Together, we can Save Them All.

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Francis Battista
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Joede

    TNR evidences that domestic animal population exists. Such a paradox that the animals are abandoned as if they are inanimate objects, yet manufacturing industries of inanimate objects apply controls to limit production when a ‘glut’ occurs. The breeding of sentient beings must be controlled; those who promote overpopulation as being a myth are placating breeders.

  • Terri

    And this is what No Kill advocates have been saying all along – reduce intake, increase outflow.

  • Kathy Pobloskie

    Thanks for this article Francis! I would just like to add to your list of programs to reduce the intake of shelter animals. Returning lost pets to their owner is perhaps the simplest, but most overlooked method of reducing “noses in”. At Lost Dogs of America we have already reunited over 13,000 dogs with their families this year – freeing up space for needier animals. And we are thrilled to see so many other organizations doing the same – working hard to get lost pets back home where they belong. Keep up the good work and together we can Save Them All!

  • Flew Coop

    The question isn’t how many homes are there, but rather how many animals need homes? The author is quite right to call this market analysis “oversimplified,” because it glosses over or eliminates entirely the universe of animals that are rehomed privately.

    However many million that number is every year, these animals all need a new home… be it the cat taken in by a family member after Grandma dies, or the dog that someone adopts when their roommate moves out, or six kittens a family rehomes from an accidental litter, or pair of pit bulls abandoned on a city corner that a kind stranger takes in…

    All of these animals need homes–homes that could have been available to a shelter animal. Conversely, if those homes are NOT available because people have already adopted shelter animals and can’t take in more, then Grandma’s cat and the roommate’s dog and the accidental litter and the two abandoned pit bulls are headed for the shelter.

    There will always be more animals than there are homes until there is a reduction in the TOTAL UNIVERSE of animals needing homes–not just the number of animals entering shelters–and TOTAL supply balances total demand.

    I have yet to hear a viable estimate of what that number really is.

  • del_jake

    While I appreciate that you are trying to simplify it down to business principals, and also agree that adoption promotion is important, the issue for most shelters will continue to be a limited budget, whether it’s a non-profit shelter or a municipality. Not every community can or will shell out millions of additional taxpayer dollars like Austin has had to do. And as we know from the business world, increased marketing and longer hours to promote the oversupply is costly. Take a look at the marketing costs at Apple each time a new product comes out, or when they’re sitting on too much product. That is much the same with sheltering. If a shelter is sitting on a large number of dogs that the public is not seeking out, whether it be because of the increased insurance costs for a breed, or a sickly elderly dog that many cannot afford to take on, then the shelter is bearing that added cost of holding them longer.

    As we saw with Best Friend’s partner Safe Haven in Delaware, the unrealistic expectation of treating every sick and injured dog that was picked up in their capacity as dog control, and then the cost of warehousing the ones that the public proved to be devastating for the shelters financial capacity, and in the end they were out of business within a year and a half of their opening and taking on our dog control contract. So not only was part of the $3 million plus that was spent building the shelter lost to animals in our state, but the shelter sits empty and will likely be bulldozed which just means less resources for the animals now. Not to mention the fact that they added to our pet overpopulation by releasing most their animals intact.

    I think it would be telling if Best Friends translated the costs that your organization incurs per animal that is kept at your sanctuary against a communities intake to translate what it would cost a community to deal with the long term dogs that many communities are dealing with. Based on the financials I have seen for the sanctuary, that number would be many times what most budgets would support.

    So while I do think every shelter should strive to improve their marketing of animals, and provide prevention programs, many of us understand that the $350,000 spent each year in New Hampshire for low income targeted spay neuter is far more attainable for most communities than the millions of additional costs incurred in Austin that keeps going up each year, or the financial losses that Nevada Humane incurred under “No-Kill”, and we just don’t want to see the progress that has been made for 30 years go out the door because more and more shelters continue to financially collapse.

  • Marie Atake

    Sadly, large portion of that market share is still taken by the breeders. Many members of the general public don’t even know the difference between no-kill rescues and “shelters,” the latter of which are actually pounds that impound animals and kill the surplus. We all know the education is the key, but if the recipients of the education lack compassion, nothing will stick. And you cannot teach compassion, so the issue is how to inspire compassion. When people want what they want (e.g., purebred puppies), they choose to be in denial. When you talk to people in denial, every word falls on deaf ears. And there are anti-pet landlords who also need to be inspired. With your political and financial power, I sincerely pray Best Friends will find a solution to this never-ending problem; i.e., lack of compassion.

  • RBen

    A good article but really nothing new. The no kill movement certainly recommends a robust shelter adoption and marketing programs AND low cost spay and neuter. In total agreement that they are both necessary. But again….that’s not new information.

  • terryward

    What no one seems to be able to grasp-or want to grasp-is the 17 million figure was derived from a poll of 200 people in 2007-8.
    This massive number of people were asked about their intentions for acquiring a PET…meaning ALL kinds of pets..since the PetProducts suppliers supply all kinds of pets..birds fish hamsters ponies snakes ect.
    This 200 were not asked if they were intending to acquire a cat or dog..they were asked if they were intending to acquire a pet.
    So much for the 17 million.
    They were also asked if they would CONSIDER a shelter animal.
    Considering to do something is not the same as committing to do something.
    But The Big Lie has wings and it is flying high..
    The whole thing is such an embarrassing fiasco …

    • Tom

      Do you have proof of or a link to the poll that keeps getting referenced? Because if all this is based on a vaguely-worded poll of 200 people, that’s absolutely appalling.

      • terryward

        Tom I will get it up here soon..and yes, it’s appalling

      • dazed_cat

        I am trying to post a link for you Tom, but it does not seem to go through on these posts. If there is a way for you to send me a message, I can send it to you.

        • dazed_cat

          This is from the marketing survey I have been trying to link to the full document. You can see 200 people were surveyed. Very little about the actual survey is mentioned and the methodology about how those people were chosen is not mentioned. It may have been very unreliable voluntary responses from a biased web-site that attracted only a certain demographic of people. We know nothing in terms of analyzing the research.

          • Guest

            Here is a second slide with additional information and in red are my questions about the information.

          • dazed_cat

            Hope it works this time.

      • Guest

        This is from the Marketing survey that I cannot link to. It mentions the 200 people surveyed.

  • Tom

    The other major consideration: Not all adopters are willing to take in any animal who needs a home — many are looking for a small dog or a non-pit bull purebred or a dog who’s already well-trained. So there is an overpopulation of certain “less desirable” breeds or types of pets.

    • dazed_cat

      Exactly Tom. Subpopulations of animals were never investigated. Wanting a ‘dog’ does not mean one wants any dog or can be convinced to have any dog.

      A survey would have to ask questions like:
      1. Would you be willing to adopt a pit bull?
      2. Would you be willing to adopt a dog that had to be an only pet because it was aggressive with other animals and might pose a danger to them?
      3. How much training are you willing to invest in a problem animal that is aggressive, has food aggression, soils the house, etc?
      4. How much are you willing to expend post adoption if the animal has health issues that need treating?
      5. Do you have any size limits, breed limits or age limits on the animal you are seeking?
      6. Are you willing to discuss alternative species or breed types or age types?
      7. Would anyone else be involved in any decision-making you might make regarding the adoption of the animal (e.g., one person saying ‘yes’ I will get a pit-bull does not mean the spouse will say ‘yes’.

      So many questions would have had to been asked…AND…in such a way that contradictory answers would be noticed as such.

      We have zero way of knowing if this survey asked any of these questions.

      • Julieveggie

        Outstanding insight! I’m also testing to see if I can post.

    • Julieveggie

      For the past 10 years, about a million pit-bull type dog are surrendered each year to shelters. This is number one type of dogs being surrendered to shelters. Shelters & rescuers are desperately trying to rehome all these animals at all cost to public safety and the safety of our beloved pets. I do understand evaluating each animal as an individual but what I’m not liking is the denial of pit-bulls being one of the most powerful dogs, even stronger than their guardians with a strong gameness trait not to give-up. Pit-bulls need an exceptional guardian. The problem with the pool of pit-bulls, we can’t tell a cold one from one that might snap because of all the unethical backyard breeding. It’s asking people to play Russian Roulette. Pit Pull Rescue Central recommends all pit-bull guardians to carry a break stick. The Rescue Train recommends pit-bulls from shelters to be only pet in household. Bad Rap pit advocacy org recommends do not take your pit-bull to dog parks.

  • Phillip Coker

    So, the solution that you’re proposing is that we should ban legal enterprises? Let’s ban puppy mills, breeders, pet shop sales, etc. because those evil enterprises provide pets for money and take away homes from shelter animals. I’m not saying that I support puppy mills because I do not. I think they are horrible and animals are treated like a dollar sign, rather than an individual. However, I do not think that lobbying the government into banning legal enterprise is the solution to this problem. Also, its just common knowledge that people want to adopt newborn to young animals. It’s kind of like adopting a child. Who wants to adopt an 18 year old kid? Many times shelter animals are older than the ideal age the public would like to adopt. It’s just a fact. So, what do you do with the a healthy, sweet animal who’s only fault is being too old? I’m not saying I have the answer or that euthanasia is the answer. Just saying that from a logical standpoint overpopulation is not a myth.

    • MS

      Philip- Little Tommy picking out his first puppy is as American as apple pie. There will always be those who insist on a pure-bred pup and therefore breeders and puppy mills will continue to exist. The goal is moderation, as the author suggest, “disrupting the puppy mill supply chain”, not eliminating enterprise altogether (although I’ve yet to see an example of humane puppy mill). There are many examples of excess in America and I would argue the for-profit production of live animals falls into that camp. What affect would a 50% reduction in puppy mills have to the the pet overpopulation problem? It would make a substantial impact. Reducing shelter euthanasia requires all players including breeders, the AKC, veterinarians (some who charge exorbitant fees resulting in a surrendered pet), puppy mills – all need to have some skin in the game to achieve a zero-sum outcome for shelters.

  • Kristi

    Exactly!!!!! Right on 🙂