Angels of Assisi believes that pets and people belong together; that financial circumstances alone are not reliable indicators of the capacity to love and care for a companion animal, and that strong bonds between people and pets make for stronger communities. From our direct care of companion animals, our work with animal welfare agencies, veterinarians, law enforcement and policy makers and our own research, we’ve also learned that there are a variety of challenging circumstances that can cause pets to lose their homes. Poverty, short term emergencies, illness, lack of affordable, accessible vet care, and a shortage of pet friendly housing can conspire to force even the most devoted pet owner to relinquish a beloved pet to a local shelter or rescue group.
For owners who are either unable to care for a pet or who no longer wish to do so, surrender to a shelter or rescue group may, at times, be the best outcome. But, as we continue to work closely with communities and to study the reasons why people relinquish their pets, we’ve learned that too often pet owners who have strong emotional bonds with their pets would choose to keep their pet, if only provided the short term help needed to make it possible. That help can come in many forms, like affordable veterinary care, pet care supplies, a well insulated dog house, waiver of fees that keep owners from reclaiming lost pets, referral to supportive human services or affordable pet friendly housing options.
Providing the support that helps owners keep their pets when it is best for the animal to remain in his or her home has become a focus of Angels of Assisi and many other animal welfare organizations in recent years. We know that this approach 1) allows shelters and rescue groups to focus their sheltering and rehoming services on animals most in need, 2) frees up critical public safety resources to address the most serious criminal activities that threaten our collective well-being, and 3) fosters the human/animal bond that provides quality of life benefits to people and pets alike.
Shelters and rescue groups play critical roles in our communities by providing refuge, protection, and care for animals that truly need it. Because funding for animal sheltering is often inadequate to meet the demand placed on shelters and rescues groups, it’s especially important that these organizations focus their efforts on the animals most in need of their services. Victims of intentional cruelty, lost pets who have strayed from home, animals displaced by disasters and animals who pose public safety threats (e.g., dangerous dogs, rabies quarantines) are plainly animals for whom the shelter and rescue system is a vital and necessary refuge. Focusing efforts on sheltering the animals most in need also frees up resources that can be directed towards community pet retention programs that focus on keeping pets and people together.
Criminal charges and seizure of animals that have been harmed or are at grave risk of harm is appropriate and necessary in cases of intentional cruelty, where the safety of the animal victims and the communities in which they live must be the priority. Yet there are many situations that instead involve pet owners, who, with help, can and wish to continue to care for their animal companions. Working with law enforcement and the animal welfare community to help distinguish between these situations, and supporting law enforcement’s exercise of discretion to treat cases as criminal when appropriate and to refer other cases for intervention that will provide support to pet owners, is a linchpin of our efforts.1
Simply put, keeping pets and people together is often the best outcome for the pets, the people, and the community. Accomplishing this goal requires that we shift our thinking, especially when it comes to preconceived notions about a person’s financial circumstances and his/her desire and ability to take good care of a pet. Of course learning from our experiences is nothing new to animal welfare professionals. We have learned that open adoption practices (those that do not set up barriers to adoption due to financial, social, or other issues) allow more pets to leave shelters and find new homes than practices that entail rigorous adoption applications and background checks (Weiss et al 2014; Gibbons et al 2014). We have also learned that people who buy pets on impulse or who receive pets as gifts are as, if not more, committed to keeping their pets than those who obtain pets in other ways (Weiss et al 2013). And finally, we have learned that people who get a pet for “free” do not value their pet any less than those who pay a fee to adopt a pet (Weiss & Gramann 2009).
We have also learned that people who are financially disadvantaged do not love their pets any less than those with more wealth. Surveys of homeless pet owners reveal a level of attachment to their pets that may be greater than that reported by pet owners who live in traditional residences (Irvine 2013). Indeed, as Leslie Irvine, who conducted a study of 72 homeless pet owners in California, Colorado and Florida points out, keeping a pet while homeless involves an intense level of commitment and more than a little hardship (Id.). The homeless routinely give up offers of shelter housing that would require them to give up or separate from their pets.
Just as there is no reason to believe that those living in persistent poverty (or those facing temporary financial hardship) are any less committed to their pets, there is no data to support the notion that they do not desire to provide the care their pets need. Indeed, existing studies point to the opposite; that there is not a correlation between income and a pet owner’s desire and commitment to provide necessary care to her animal companions (Poresky & Daniels 1998; Staats et al 1996).
However, people with fewer financial means do face some daunting obstacles to keeping their pets. While solving the complex societal issue of poverty is beyond the ken of the animal welfare field, we absolutely can solve some of the obstacles to pet retention by committing to the following principles and actions.
First, we must ensure that our own attitudes and actions do not create further obstacles to people keeping their pets. We should treat people with dignity and respect, no matter their financial or life circumstances. We should suspend judgment and inherent bias and make sure that we do not allow people’s appearance, ethnicity, manner or language of speech, or attire influence our judgment about their ability or desire to care for their pets. We should demonstrate our commitment to these principles by ensuring that our staff is representative of the communities we serve and that our programs engage with and include those communities in a meaningful way.
Responsibilities of Shelters
Shelter policies must reflect the complementary goals of keeping pets and their people together, reuniting lost pets with their families, and finding new homes for pets who have lost theirs. In our position statement on the responsibilities of shelters (Responsibilities of Animal Shelters), we make clear that shelter policies should treat potential adopters respectfully and should never discriminate against them based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identification or financial circumstances. Just as importantly shelter policies should not create barriers to owners reuniting with lost pets. Shelters should have, and liberally employ, discretion to reduce or waive return to owner fees. While shelters may rely on these and other fees for income, the cost of caring for, rehoming or possibly euthanizing an animal is often more than the lost income. Sending the animal home is frequently the better outcome for the pet, the family and the shelter.
Pet Retention and Community Engagement Programs
Strategic and well resourced safety net programs should be in place to enable and encourage collaboration between key agencies (animal shelters, rescues, veterinarians, law enforcement, human service providers, food banks and policy makers) to identify situations where keeping pets and people together may be the best course of action and ensure that vital services are provided to accomplish this goal. Through our own pet retention and community medicine work in New York and Los Angeles, we are learning how effective collaboration between animal welfare, law enforcement and human service agencies can be in helping people keep pets, reducing the numbers of animals entering shelters, and allowing more effective use of shelter and law enforcement resources. In a survey we conducted focusing on owners relinquishing large dogs in New York City and Washington D.C., more than half of the respondents reported that assistance may have helped them keep their pets. Many of the reasons for relinquishment cited in this survey were short term challenges that would have been easily resolvable with supportive services (Weiss et al 2014b). Even more powerful was a survey in L.A., where we found that 88% of those surveyed chose to explore safety net options when they were made aware of them (Dolan et al 2015).
Accessible and Affordable Veterinary Care
Pet sterilization and preventative veterinary care should be accessible to all pet owners in the community and financial, transportation, immigration status and language barriers should never undermine access to these services. A study we conducted in Los Angeles revealed that the vast majority of owners relinquishing pets were doing so based on inability to afford or access medical or spay/neuter services (Dolan et al 2015). Another national study showed that 40 percent of low income owners who rehomed their pets reported that access to affordable vet care would have helped them keep their pet (Weiss et al 2015).
Pet Friendly Housing
Laws and policies should expand affordable pet friendly housing options as well as the ability of the homeless and victims of domestic violence to seek refuge in shelters with their pets (or with provisions made for their pets in alternative housing facilities). Our rehoming study revealed that nationally, those who rent are more likely to need to rehome their pets for housing issues than for any other reason (Weiss et al 2015).
Housing laws and policies that ban pets, prohibit specific breeds, require cats to be declawed or dogs to be debarked or severely restrict pet ownership based on size should be rejected. In their place, we should support reasonable pet and housing policies that help keep people and pets together while enhancing the safety of residents and protecting the interests of landlords. Examples of such measures include policies that hold owners accountable for providing proper care and supervision for their pets (including leashing requirements, prohibitions on chaining/tethering, and requirements that owners pick up after their pets); policies that require reasonable, refundable pet deposits to encourage more property owners to make rental housing pet friendly; and policies that ensure even-handed, non-breed specific enforcement of these measures.
Laws and policies that categorize certain dog breeds as inherently “dangerous” or “vicious” without regard to their behavior and that permit insurance companies to refuse coverage for homeowners and renters owning specific breeds of dogs should likewise be strongly opposed.
Laws with Unintended Consequences
Care should be taken to ensure that laws enacted with the aim of better protecting pets don’t instead have the opposite effect. For example, many animal control laws; including those requiring licensing, identification, sterilization, rabies inoculation, leashing in public places and adequate outdoor shelter; entail monetary penalties and sometimes seizure of the animal with payment of fines as a prerequisite for return to owner. While these provisions play an important role in ensuring pet and public safety, they can also unwittingly increase shelter intake and euthanasia when owners do not have the funds to pay for a new dog house, license fees, sterilization costs or attendant penalties. Ensuring that these laws are never enforced in a manner that discriminates against or targets segments of the community, and that there is discretion to waive or reduce penalties based on owner compliance, is crucial if we are to achieve the goal of keeping people and pets together.
Angels of Assisi believes that keeping people and pets together, whenever it is possible and appropriate to do so, should be a priority for the animal welfare community and for society as a whole. To achieve this goal, we must put aside preconceived notions and treat people with respect and dignity whatever their financial or other life circumstances. We must support laws and policies that strengthen and support rather than break the bond between people and their animal companions. And perhaps most importantly, we must all work together; human and animal service agencies, pet owners, veterinarians, landlords, and policy makers; to ensure that pets and their people continue to live together; safe, secure, happy, and a vital part of the community.
1We do not suggest that financially challenged pet owners be held to a lesser legal standard of animal care than those with greater resources. Instead, we believe that the capacity to care for pets should not be judged based on financial resources. We also recognize the distinction between a devoted pet owner who eagerly assumes responsibility for proper care of his pet and simply needs help in overcoming financial or other obstacles, and the pet owner who, despite offers of assistance, persists in failing to provide necessary care to their pet, resulting in unnecessary suffering or other harm. For the former, we support the notion of keeping the person and pet together. For the latter, we support the judgment of law enforcement to hold the owner accountable for their actions, including through imposition of criminal charges.
Dolan, E., Scotto, J., Slater, M. & Weiss, E. (2015). Risk factors for dog relinquishment to a Los Angeles municipal animal shelter: A case control study. Animals. 5: 1311-1328.
Mohan-Gibbons, H., Weiss, E., Garrison, L., & Allison, M. (2014) Evaluation of a novel dog adoption program in two US communities. Plos1. 9: e91959.
Irvine, L. (2013). My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and their Animals. p 5. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.
Poresky, R.H., & Daniels, A.M. (1998). Demographics of pet presence and attachment. Anthrozoos. 11: 236-241.
Staats, S., Miller, D., Carnot, M.J., Rada, K., & Turnes, J. (1996). The Miller-Rada Commitment to Pets Scale. Anthrozoos. 9: 88-94.
Weiss, E., Gramann, S., Dolan, E., Scotto, J., & Slater, M. (2014a). Do policy based adoptions increase the care a pet receives? An exploration of a shift to conversation based adoption at one shelter. Animal Sciences. 4: 313-322.
Weiss, E., Slater, S., Garrison, L., Drain, N., Dolan, E., Scarlett, J.M., & Zawistowski, S. (2014b). Large dog relinquishment at two municipal facilities in NY and DC: Indentifying targets for intervention. Animals. 4: 409-433.
Weiss, E., Dolan, E., Garrison, L., Hong, J., & Slater, M. (2013). Should dogs and cats be given as gifts? Animals. Volume 3(4) 995-1101.
Weiss E. Gramann, S (2009). A comparison of attachment levels of adopters of cats – fee based adoptions vs. free adoptions. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 12: 360-370.
Weiss, E., Gramann, S., Spain, V., & Slater, M. (2015). Goodbye to a good friend: An exploration of the re-homing of cats and dogs in the U.S.. Open Journal of Animal Sciences. 5: 435- 456.