Are there too many dogs and cats?

Are there too many dogs and cats?

Pet overpopulation myths and facts.

By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 03/19/1997 Category: | Canine Issues |

Pamphlets on pet overpopulation with pictures of sad-eyed puppies and kittens and starving, sickly adult dogs arrive in the mail periodically with pleas for funds, exhortations to spay and neuter anything that looks like a dog or cat, and admonitions to adopt from a shelter instead of buying from a breeder.

Dog Fancy carries a full page advertisement from United Action for Animals that claims 15 million stray dogs and cats born each year - so send us money.

Various organizations claim five million, 10 million, 12 million healthy animals killed in shelters annually for lack of homes - so send us money and support breeder restrictions.

Writing in Dog Fancy, Gary Wilkes writes about "untruth in numbers," and various efforts to bring sense to the compilation of statistics.

There is a myth at large in the land, a myth perpetuated by people who would end the breeding of purebred dogs and cats, a myth that is actually bought hook, line, and sinker by many canine and feline breed fanciers.

Activists use this myth as a bludgeon to convince the public that dog and cat breeders are at fault for the animals that die in shelters, and many breeders and fanciers scurry to don a hairshirt and flail themselves and their colleagues for complicity in these deaths. Some even work with radical groups that are responsible for breeding restrictions and to try to impose self-regulations to prove a sense of responsibility.

The myth is "overpopulation" as the reason for shelter euthanasia of healthy, adoptable dogs and cats, "overpopulation" that radicals trace to the folks who are doing things right - the majority of purebred breeders. But "overpopulation" is a brilliant propaganda campaign aimed at defaming purebred breeders, a campaign that has even the American Kennel Club participating in a "pet population committee" and using the term "overpopulation" in magazine articles.

It's time for a reality check.

Writing in Anthrozoos Gary Patronek of Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine and Andrew Rowan of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine have started the ball rolling. Patronek and Rowan compiled statistics from the pet industry, the American Kennel Club, the American veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the US, the American Humane Association, and other sources to paint a picture of dog ownership in the US in a recent editorial in the scholarly magazine published by the Delta Society.

The compilation did not include information about feral dogs, because (contrary to assertions from United Action for Animals) "the data indicates that this population is very small" and "it appears as though there are very few feral or unowned dogs in the USA today."(Cats may be a different story, although there are no figures available to make that judgment, according to the report.)

Rowan and Patronek report that about 52 million dogs live in 35 million US households. About 6.2 million dogs die each year, 3.8 million in homes, veterinary hospitals and under the wheels of a vehicle, and an additional 2.4 million in shelters. Each year, owners acquire about 7.3 million dogs, including 5.8 million puppies from pet stores and breeders, one million dogs from animal shelters, and 500,000 as adult strays or previously owned pets.

Puppies come from 3.3 percent of dog-owning households as follows:

Show breeders, 1.8 million (31 percent);
Amateur breeders, 1.3 million (23 percent);
Mixed breeds, 2.6 million (46 percent).
Pet stores, 500,000(7 percent)


About four million dogs enter shelters each year:
400,000 puppies from households that produce litters but do not place the pups in new homes.
Strays, about 2.2 million
Reclaimed by their owners, about 600,000, (leaving 1.6 million strays available for adoption).
Owner surrenders, About 1.8 million (300,000 for euthanasia and 1.5 million for adoption).

One million of the 3.1 million dogs available for adoption do get new homes, leaving 2.1 million additional dogs euthanized. However, this number is not broken down by health or temperament, leaving a gap in understanding of just how many healthy dogs die for lack of a home.

There are more dogs than ever in homes in the US according to a survey done by the American Association of Pet Product Manufacturers in 1994, and there are fewer dogs and cats than ever dying in shelters according to the latest study done by Tufts University. In 1992, APPMA showed 53.1 million dogs in US households; in 1994, the number jumped to 54.2 million dogs in 34 million households. And the Tufts study showed 1.8-2.1 million dogs euthanized in shelters, a far cry from the six or eight or more million claimed by animal rights activists.

The chain of thought that blames the production of purebred puppies for the death of an unwanted mongrel in an animal shelter makes mockery of logic. It assumes that dogs are "one size fits all," that a buyer will adopt an adult curly-coated 15-pound ball of fur of unknown origin and potential dog behavior problems when he really wants a Dalmatian or Doberman puppy to grow up with his children. And it removes the burdens of marketing, education, behavior modification, and veterinary care from shelters that buy into the message. After all, it's easier to blame others, to be a victim, than it is to analyze and solve the problem.

Yet repeated often enough and illustrated with pictures of forlorn dogs and cats in shelter cages or dead bodies dumped in barrels, the accusations take hold and are turned into anti-breeding legislation in counties and cities throughout the country.


There's no doubt that animal shelters euthanize hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats that could be wonderful pets, and there's no doubt that breeders and fanciers can help alleviate that tragedy. But first the problem must be defined in each area (cities have different problems than rural areas, affluent communities have different problems than poor ones, etc.), then potential solutions should be explored. Since purebred rescue services exist throughout the country, an examination of shelter and rescue relationships should be done and suggestions made for improvement.

Kennel, breed, and training clubs can be an integral part of the solution without the mea culpas, without buying the premise that there are too many dogs. In fact, many are already doing so. Here's how:

  • Conducting seminars on responsible dog ownership for new owners and adopters and for those convicted on a first offense against local dog laws.
  • Providing information to the general public on breed and breeder selection, training, and general dog care.
  • Joining local shelters in fundraising and marketing efforts.
  • Maintaining good relationships between purebred rescues and shelters.
  • Helping shelters with evaluation and training of dogs surrendered because of behavior problems.
  • Promoting pet identification through tattoos, licenses, or microchips to help reunite lost pets with their owners.
  • Promoting purebred dog events as family outings to acquaint the public with the fun, excitement, and beauty of organized dog activities.
  • Encouraging sterilization of pets through public announcements and spay/neuter contracts or limited registration.
  • Bringing the AKC Best Friends education program to local elementary schools to teach humane pet care to children.
  • Conducting community Canine Good Citizen tests to highlight good pet manners.

Perhaps most important is the need for publicity for each program and event. The radicals cannot gain a foothold with their agenda if fanciers take charge and market their efforts.

About The Author

Norma Bennett Woolf's photo
Norma Bennett Woolf -
Editor and Writer for the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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