Why do good dogs die in shelters?
Hundreds of thousands of dogs die in US shelters every year. Many of these dogs are friendly, healthy dogs that would make great family members - so why do they lose their lives rather than find homes?
Pet overpopulation is a huge problem in the US. According to the ASPCA, around 6 million dogs and cats will enter shelters this year, with nearly a million losing their lives. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many shelters and rescues have reported low adoption rates without any slow in the number of animals in need of assistance. When more animals are coming in than leaving, the lives of those animals hang in the balance.
Note: In this article, we will mainly discuss dogs, but most of this information applies to cats, too.
In this article:
- Private vs municipal organizations
- How are euthanasia decisions made?
- "No-kill" organizations
- Shelter protocol for health- and behavior-related euthanasia
- Euthanasia for space
- How can we reduce euthanasia rates?
- Keeping pets in their homes
- Getting pets back home
- Removing barriers to adoption
- Make foster programs more accessible
- Help those that choose to purchase a puppy find a responsible breeder
- Normalize adoption and break stigmas
Private vs municipal organizations
There are thousands of rescues and shelters across the US, most of which are independent entities that operate separately from all other animal-related organizations. Most organizations can be categorized as a private, foster-based rescue without a physical shelter; a private rescue with a physical shelter; or a municipal shelter that is, at least in part, funded by the local government.
Every organization will operate a little bit differently from the others. These differences may be found in leadership and organizational structure, paid staff vs volunteers, rules for adoption, types of available foster programs, requirements for an animal to be eligible for adoption, how euthanasia decisions are made, and more. There are, however, some generalizations that we can make in the differences between private and municipal organizations.
In general, private rescues and shelters can decide which animals they accept into their programs. Some organizations may choose to only accept dogs of a certain breed, that do not require extra medical care or training, or that will be relatively "easy" to adopt out. Other organizations may choose to only accept dogs that do need special care or are otherwise "difficult" cases that may take longer to adopt out or require sanctuary care. While it is never easy to say no to an animal in need, private organizations can make the choice to turn down an animals that doesn't meet their requirements or to stop accepting animals when their facility and/or foster homes are full.
Municipal shelters, which are typically funded at a city or county level, typically have less choice in which animals they accept. Most operate as 'open intake' facilities, which means that they will accept all or nearly all animals in need of assistance. This may include strays; animals brought in by animal control or other law enforcement officers due to neglect, abuse, or abandonment; and animals that are surrendered by members of the community. Open intake shelters typically do not have the ability to pause intake until they can move animals into homes in the way that private organizations can.
Typically, the staff on the ground in a municipal shelter has less say over various rules and regulations than staff and volunteers of private organizations. While the operating structure of a municipal shelter can vary, most are overseen by or report to another branch or individual within that government; for example, this may be the sheriff, the health department, or the mayor. The level of priority that a shelter is given when it comes to funding and public relations will also vary. This means that shelter staff, even in higher level positions, may not be able to make the decisions that they personally feel are in the best interest of the animals in their care. That could mean that they aren't able to implement the adoption and foster programs that they'd like to see, have strict regulations in place about which animals are eligible to be adopted out, or must impose limits on how long an animal can remain in the shelter's care.
Keeping these differences in mind can help us better understand how and why euthanasia decisions are made by various organizations.
How are euthanasia decisions made?
Almost all organizations, both private and municipal, will need to make euthanasia decisions at some point. Even with all of the resources in the world, there will always be situations in which an animal's quality of life cannot be maintained. How these decisions are made varies greatly from one organization to the next.
A No-Kill organization is categorized as having a live release rate of 90% or more. This means that at least 90% of the animals that enter the shelter or rescue leave via adoption or transfer to another organization. This assumes that up to 10% of animals entering a shelter or rescue will have health or behavior issues that make an acceptable quality of life either completely impossible or unreasonable to achieve in an acceptable amount of time (i.e. a dog that could theoretically be treated, but would be in an unacceptable amount of pain for a prolonged period of time during treatment).
Euthanasia protocol within no-kill organizations varies widely. Some organizations will explore every possible treatment option before making a euthanasia decision; others will make a decision based on a veterinarian's prognosis and the likelihood of recovery, even if these are other options that could theoretically be tried. Some organizations will have the resources to offer sanctuary to a dog that cannot be safely adopted out; others will make euthanasia decisions for dogs that are suffering from severe anxiety or other mental anguish that cannot be realistically managed.
No matter their protocol once an animal is in their care, many no-kill organizations have the ability to say no to incoming animals when they are at capacity or do not have the resources to treat a certain animal. This isn't to say that no open intake shelter can achieve no-kill status - many certainly have! But the ability to do so is dependent on so many factors that are often outside of an open intake shelter's control, such as the number of animals in need in their community, funding, and resource availability within the community.
Shelter protocol for health- and behavior-related euthanasia
Every shelter will have their own protocol for euthanasia decisions, from who makes the final decision to which animals are chosen. In some cases, part of this process may be specified by someone outside of the shelter (the mayor, sheriff, city council, etc.), giving shelter staff limited options in making decisions.
In general, a shelter will have a specific person or team of people who are responsible for euthanasia decisions. This may include the shelter's director or manager; a veterinarian or vet tech; a behaviorist, trainer, or team that has been trained to evaluate a dog's behavior; shelter techs or supervisors. Whoever is making this decision may consider input from reports or notes taken by other staff and/or volunteers.
Even though municipal shelters (and some private organizations with government contracts) receive funding from taxpayer dollars, the majority are underfunded or only receive enough funds for basic care. Grants and donations often make up a large part of the budget for anything beyond the basics, but this can be an unreliable source of income.
Some open intake shelters may have a veterinarian or vet tech on staff, but do not have a surgical suite or the supplies necessary for more complex care. Many shelters simply do not have the resources to treat a dog with severe injury or illness, including space to quarantine the dog (for both the safety of that dog and the rest of the population), staff to provide care, and funds for medication and medical supplies. While some shelters may have the option to transfer those dogs to private organizations, this can be difficult to do in a timely manner, and euthanasia may be the kindest option for the animal.
Similarly, most open intake shelters do not have the means to care for a dog that needs more than basic behavior support. Shelter environments can be extremely difficult for a lot of dogs, so even with a qualified trainer or behaviorist on staff, the extent to which a dog's behavior can be modified may be limited. Some shelters may be prohibited from placing a dog with a bite record or otherwise deemed "dangerous" by animal control, law enforcement, or a judge. While some shelters will have the option to transfer these dogs to private organizations, the number of available spots within these organizations is typically limited and may not always be an option.
Euthanasia for space
When an open intake shelter runs out of room, they must make space for incoming animals. Ideally, space is created when animals are returned to their rightful owners, are adopted, enter foster care, or are transferred to private organizations. Sometimes, though, space is made my euthanizing animals in the shelter's care. Again, the exact method for making these decisions will vary by shelter.
It is extremely important to remember that these decisions are not made lightly. The vast majority of shelter staff are doing everything that they can to prevent euthanizing animals for space, and these decisions weigh so heavily on them. When resources (including funds, space, and staff) are limited, partner organizations are full, and fosters and adoptions are slow, with dozens of animals coming in every single day, sometimes shelters truly have no other choice. While some shelters have the ability to "make room" by putting dogs in offices, doubling up dogs in kennels, or setting up extra crates in hallways, these are only temporary solutions, and this extra space will eventually fill up, too.
Because most shelters must operate with some level of intake hold (a certain period of time that they must hold onto an animal before it becomes available for adoption, transfer, or euthanasia), the animals that are on the adoption floor may be the ones at risk of euthanasia when space must be made.
Some shelters will take the length of a dog's stay into consideration when making euthanasia decisions. Some shelters operate with "deadlines," setting a date, typically a specific number of days after intake, on which a dog will be euthanized if they have not found placement, regardless of that dog's health or behavior. This is most common at high-intake shelters where individual assessments may not be possible due to staff or resource constraints.
The affect of a long term shelter stay can be extremely difficult on a dog. This means that, even if a shelter does not place deadlines, a dog's physical and/or mental health is more likely to deteriorate the longer that they are in a kennel, potentially placing them at higher risk when a shelter must euthanize for space. Dogs who are extremely fearful, excessively anxious, or whose quality of life is otherwise in decline, may be at higher risk when space must be made.
Dogs with minor health or behavior concerns, who would typically be eligible for adoption, may also be at higher risk. There may be times at which a shelter has the space and resources to work with a dog that lacks impulse control or has heartworm disease, but if that dog is going to take twice or three times as long to find a home as dogs without those concerns, a shelter may choose to use that space for dogs that will find placement faster, thus saving more lives in the long run.
In some cases, a dog's breed or appearance may be taken into consideration. A shelter in an area with Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) may not be allowed to adopt out pit-type dogs at all. They may be able to transfer bully breeds to private organizations, but when those organizations are also operating at full capacity and are unable to take in new dogs, those dogs may be at higher risk of euthanasia. A shelter that has a lot of medium-to-large mixed breed and pit-type dogs may be more likely to choose those dogs for euthanasia than purebred or small dogs, simply because the purebred and small dogs are more likely to be adopted quickly.
A dog's age may also be a consideration. Because less people are open to adopting a senior dog than a younger dog, and because older dogs sometimes require more care to keep them healthy, they may be more likely to be chosen for euthanasia. Shelters that do not have the means to care for neonatal puppies without a mom or are unable to find placement outside of the shelter for a mom and puppies may also choose euthanasia as they are at a higher risk of getting dangerously ill in a shelter environment.
Again, please remember how difficult it is for shelter staff to choose dogs to euthanize for space. Staff often suffers from burnout, compassion fatigue, and the burden of making life or death decisions for animals that they want nothing more than to save. Until we as a community find other ways to reduce pet overpopulation, shelter staff can only do what they can with the resources that they've been given.
How can we reduce euthanasia rates?
The best way to reduce the number of animals that are euthanized in shelters is to reduce the number of animals entering shelters in the first place! Of course, this is not a simple feat; there are many factors at play that must be addressed in tandem to keep animals out of shelters, alongside increasing adoption rates.
Reducing the number of unplanned litters can make a significant impact on the number of homeless animals. Most rescues and shelters will ensure that animals are sterilized before adoption, but what about animals that are purchased elsewhere, given to friends/families, or are found and kept by people in the community?
As the US faces a veterinarian shortage, prices for basic vet care soar. Many vet offices have long wait times for appointments and routine procedures like spay and neuter. Both of these factors make it difficult for people in the community to sterilize their pets, even if they understand the importance and want to have it done.
Low cost spay/neuter clinics can have a huge impact on sterilization numbers. While some shelters have the capacity to offer this as a service to their community, outside organizations that make this their sole mission are an incredibly important component. Grants that reduce or eliminate the cost to pet guardians, assistance with transportation to and from the clinic, and mobile clinics that can pop up in areas that do not have many veterinary resources make it possible for a much larger population of people to participate with their pets.
Keeping pets in their homes
Many of the animals that find themselves in shelters once had a home. When these animals are surrendered, it is typically because their families do not have the resources to care for them. A family that loves their pet and wants the best for them may think that surrendering them to a shelter is the best course of action.
In some cases, a dog may be presenting with a health or behavior issue that their family does not know how to handle or is unable to afford. Other times, the family is struggling to afford things like food for their pets, and potentially themselves, too.
Making necessary resources like pet food, vet care, and training support easily accessible to those who need them can have a significant impact on the number of animals entering shelters. Some open intake shelters have programs in place to provide this type of intervention to families who are considering surrendering their pet, but separate outreach organizations whose entire mission is to keep pets in their homes are so important.
There is no animal welfare without human welfare. As more humans face housing insecurity, job loss, and other barriers to caring for themselves and their human family, more pets find themselves in shelters.
Getting pets back home
According to the ASPCA, around 15% of pets will go missing at some point in their life. Getting those pets back to their families quickly and safely helps reduce the number of pets waiting in shelters.
While a collar and ID tag is probably the quickest way for the average person to get a pet back home, microchips with up-to-date information are a more permanent solution that allow shelters and vets to contact a pet's family as soon as the pet enters a facility. Some cities and counties are moving away from traditional pet licenses, opting instead to provide a microchip at low or no cost.
Helping people in our community understand what they should do should they either lose or find a pet is an important piece of the puzzle. So many pets are only one 'lost/found pet' poster or knock on the door away from being returned to their family, yet end up in a shelter or given away to a stranger because a well-intentioned person thought that it was the right thing to do.
Removing barriers to adoption
We all want every rescue pet to find a happy, loving forever home, but all too often, we let our own biases and judgement get in the way of that.
Restrictive adoption processes with black-and-white rules on what makes a "good" home frequently deny what would be a loving, wonderful family from adopting. Worse, this often turns people off of shelters and rescues completely, leading more people to purchase a puppy from unethical sources like pet stores.
Millions of dogs live happy, healthy lives in apartments, without a fenced in yard, with small children in the home, with or without another dog for companionship, with humans that work full time... the list goes on. Of course, there will be individual dogs who shouldn't live with little kids or absolutely need another dog in the home, but making a blanket rule for all dogs does a disservice not only to potential adopters, but to that dog and the dog that would then get to take their place in the shelter.
Treating each animal and each potential adopter as individuals is vital to increasing adoption rates. Having an open and honest conversation, without judgement and bias, with a potential adopter about what they are looking for and who will be the best fit for their individual situation sets the adopter and dog up for success.
Make foster programs more accessible
Foster homes are a true lifeline for shelters and rescues. Making these programs more accessible to the general public is not only a great way to get dogs out of the shelter environment, but to get the public involved and excited about helping homeless animals in their community.
Recent studies have found that even a single night out of the shelter environment is beneficial for shelter dogs, lowering stress levels and increasing adoptability by giving the shelter better information on what kind of home would be the best fit for that dog.
Being deeply involved in the animal welfare community can make it easy to forget that a lot of people genuinely have no idea that pet overpopulation is such a large problem in the US. So many people think that shelter animals are "broken" or in some way inferior simply because they haven't had personal experience with them. Getting the public involved with day trip and overnight foster programs can change that, producing long lasting benefits for all of the animals in our communities.
Help those that choose to purchase a puppy find a responsible breeder
There will always be people who choose to purchase a puppy rather than adopt, but we can prevent those dogs from eventually ending up in a shelter by helping those people make an educated decision when making that purchase.
As any breed rises in popularity, it becomes more common in shelters and rescues, too. In some cases, these dogs are surrendered because their human no longer has time for them or decides that this breed is not the right fit for their lifestyle. Some dogs present with minor health or behavior issues that their humans are unable or unwilling to manage. Others, though, are suffering from serious health or behavior issues that are a direct result of irresponsible breeding practices.
A breeder that truly cares about the dogs and breed preservation will do everything in their power to prevent genetic issues. This includes genetic testing of potential parents, ensuring that potential parents have an ideal temperament, and retiring parents should a puppy present with a genetic issue despite precautions. A responsible breeder will be open and transparent with families before they purchase a puppy, communicate with families after they have purchased a puppy, and will always provide assistance should one of their puppies later need to be re-homed. These efforts help keep dogs out of shelters.
When someone purchases a puppy from a pet store, puppy mill, online broker, or other irresponsible or inhumane source, there is no safety net for the dog or the family. If something goes wrong, these dogs are much more likely to end up in a shelter. If we can help people avoid these unethical sources, we can help set them and their future dog up for success.
Normalize adoption and break stigmas
Even if you can't adopt right now, can't foster or volunteer, can't afford to donate large sums of money, you can still help homeless animals in your community - and it's as easy as talking about it!
Most people have heard of adoption, they know that animal rescues and shelters exist, but they truly do not know about pet overpopulation or understand just how important of a role shelters play in our communities. They may think that shelter dogs are "broken" or more of a risk, that shelters themselves are dangerous or evil places. Even people who actively participate in animal welfare in some way, volunteering for a local rescue or supporting national organizations like the ASPCA, do not truly understand the purpose that local shelters serve or the resources that they can provide to their community.
The best way to change people's minds is to talk about it. Keep shelters and rescues in plain view through the media, online, and in our daily lives. It's not about lecturing people or trying to make them feel bad for not adopting; this can do more harm than good. Instead, talk about the good things that your local shelter is doing, like the fun foster programs that they offer; help showcase dogs who are available for adoption, both online and in casual public places, like dog-friendly coffee shops; simply talk about your own rescue pet and how they have brought joy to your life.
In the moment, it often doesn't feel like much, but these small moments can plant seeds that help save lives down the road.
No dog deserves to die in a shelter
In a perfect world, every dog would be able to find the perfect forever home. No one would ever have to make the decision to surrender their pet, or the decision to euthanize an animal because the resources to care for them simply are not there. Unfortunately, our world is far from perfect.
We may not be able to save every single animal that enters a shelter, but we can absolutely take steps to prevent healthy, happy, behaviorally-sound dogs from needless death. We have to stop placing blame on the shelters themselves and recognize that this is a much larger issue, and it will take efforts on every part of our communities to make a change.
Everyone can do something. Adopt a dog, foster a cat, volunteer at your local shelter. Donate money or pet supplies that you no longer use, or simply share this article for others to read. Everyone has a role to play to save the lives of homeless animals.
All of the dogs included in this article were fostered in my own home in 2018-19 and were adopted into forever homes.