Shelter Animals Count finds more dogs euthanized than cats in shelters for first time since the first surveys were done
PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania; BRUNSWICK, Maine; ATLANTA, Georgia––A political fight over spay/neuter funding in Pittsburgh, the seven-year-old Feline Fix by Five campaign directed by Esther Mechler from Brunswick, Maine, and the recently released 2023 Annual Analysis from the Shelter Animals Count consortium have in common attempts to grapple with the post-COVID-19 spay/neuter gap.
All put the spotlight on cats.
The spay/neuter gap was estimated in 2022 by University of Florida at Gainesville professor Julie Levy and fellow researchers as 2.7 million fewer surgeries performed in 2020-2021 than would have been performed if the pace of 2019 had been sustained.
Consequences of COVID-19 s/n shutdowns
The consequences of much of the humane community having dropped spay/neuter like a hissing, spitting cat with all 20 claws flying, as advised at the time by the American SPCA [ASPCA] and others, appear to have evolved exactly as ANIMALS 24-7 and guest columnists Ruth Steinberger of SpayFIRST! and Bryan Kortis of Neighborhood Cats predicted it would back in April 2020, but much less catastrophically for cats than for dogs.
Animal shelter intakes are up, shelter killing is up, and even though adoptions have increased, with shelters receiving more healthy puppies and kittens to rehome, the U.S. as a whole was at the end of 2023––according to Shelter Animals Count––still at least 359,000 dogs and 330,000 cats short of becoming a “no-kill nation” by 2025, the longtime stated goal of the Best Friends Animal Society and many other no-kill organizations
ANIMALS 24-7 will separately examine the Shelter Animals Count dog data, most of it bad news involving pit bulls, whom the Shelter Animals Count report never mentions, at a later date.
Yes, there is some good news
The good news––and yes, there is some good news––mostly pertains to cats.
Credit for that may be taken by those free and low-cost spay/neuter programs that kept going through the COVID-19 years, including that of Animal Friends in Pittsburgh.
A timely assist came from Feline Fix by Five, which had gained momentum nationwide before COVID-19 hit.
Feline Fix by Five, promoted by Esther Mechler through the organizations Marian’s Dream and the United Spay Alliance, now appears to have shifted veterinary and public perception of the best age to spay a cat downward, from six months to five months, so successfully in seven years of campaigning that the former recommendation of waiting until a female kitten has her first heat is no longer found high in the Google search rankings.
Currently the first 15 entries about when to spay a cat offered by Dr. Google, the first source consulted by most people for veterinary advice worldwide, now stipulate that female cats should be spayed at or before five months of age.
Why Feline Fix by Five?
The net outcome of that, in terms of surgeries performed and litters prevented, is not easily quantified, but may be evident in some of the Shelter Animals Count cat data.
Motivating Mechler, she says, is that “According to a study in Framingham, Massachusetts, done years ago, 87% of all litters are ‘first litters,’ born around the age of five months.
“Many pet owners don’t know the appropriate age to spay/neuter their cat, while many think six months or later is okay,” or at least did.
“In a marketing study done from 2009 and 2011” Mechler recounts, “in a sample of 3,000, three-fourths of adults fell into these categories.”
Someone has to perform the surgery
Other research done around the same time found that while 87% of female pet cats were already sterilized, the owners of 7%––more than half––believed they should sterilize their cats after the cats’ first heat, at which point many of those cats would become pregnant.
“The veterinary profession does not have a standardized recommendation for the age of spay/neuter in cats,” continues Mechler “Some veterinarians may still be working on outdated information, putting lives at risk and enabling potentially unwanted litters.
“Feline Fix by Five aims to change that by spreading awareness on the importance of fixing early, and the lifesaving difference spaying/neutering even one month sooner can make.”
Of course someone has to actually perform the surgery, and people who have cats must be able to afford the operations, as Mechler knows from her 20 years of directing the national SpayUSA hotline for the North Shore Animal League America.
Extensive research has demonstrated time and again for more than 50 years that families at or above the median U.S. income level are more than twice as likely to have their female cats spayed at regular veterinary prices than families living below the median, with spay rates predictably dropping most precipitously for families below the poverty line, even though, on average, low income families feed just as many cats as those in the upper income brackets.
That brings up the Pittsburgh fracas. Explained Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Sydney Carruth on February 7, 2024, “A citywide program that provides free spay/neuter services for Pittsburgh pet owners is coming to a halt, the city’s Bureau of Animal Care & Control announced Tuesday.
“The taxpayer-funded program is aimed at keeping the city’s population of stray cats and dogs at bay by offering free spay/neuter procedures to pet owners who have a Pittsburgh address.
Some may call them “community cats” but the community doesn’t buy it
“Since the program launched in 2015,” Carruth continued, “veterinary staff at Animal Friends have performed thousands of spay and neuter surgeries at their Animal Wellness Clinic, according to Cindy Cole, a spokesperson for the Animal Friends shelter.”
Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety recently discovered “cases of non-Pittsburgh residents borrowing the city addresses of friends and family to have their pets spayed or neutered for free,” Carruth wrote.
Subsidizing spay/neuter as a community funding priority is a hard sell to taxpayers and elected officials anywhere, especially when they perceive that they are providing free services to non-taxpayers who do not reside––or vote––within the community.
Truth or consequences?
The benefits of subsidizing spay/neuter outside the immediate community can be demonstrated in ecological terms, but not so easily in dollars and cents as perceived by taxpayers who ask “What’s in it for me?”
The consequences of not subsidizing spay/neuter for anyone, though, are easily predictable.
Warned Catcalls Rescue director Jody Mader, “If cats cannot get fixed this spring, we are going to see a repeat of what happened during COVID when all of the vets shut down their services and canceled spay/neuter appointments. After that, the number of homeless cats skyrocketed.”
Pittsburgh Hill District Cats director Rivky Blumberger predicted that the Pittsburgh homeless cat population might triple.
Carruth closed by echoing promises that “Staff at the Bureau of Animal Care and Control will work to develop new applicant criteria that are tailored to Pittsburgh pet owners most in need,” and “will also focus on ways to keep the feral cat population under control, according to the city.”
ANIMALS 24-7, along with Pittsburgh animal advocates and cat rescuers, will be watching.
Shelter Animals Count
Shelter Animals Count, a $500,000-a-year organization with a $101,000-a-year executive director, was formed in 2011 by a consortium now funded by 28 national animal charities and foundations as a distant and indirect descendant of the National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy, formed by an overlapping consortium in 1993.
Prior to 1993, animal shelter intake and exit information had been systematically tabulated only twice ever, by National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull in 1947-1950, whose findings were later published by the American Humane Association, and by the American Humane Association itself, in 1986, reporting data from 1985.
All other published estimates were projected from those two surveys, sometimes updated by informal American Humane Association surveys done by postcard.
Both the National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy and Shelter Animals Count originated after ANIMALS 24-7 repeatedly embarrassed much of the humane community by demonstrating the inaccuracy of many cherished shibboleths based on bad data.
In 1993 the focal problem was that the advent of low-cost and free high-volume spay/neuter, together with public acceptance of the need to sterilize dogs and cats, had driven down animal shelter intakes and population control killing much faster than most people working in animal shelters realized.
ANIMALS 24-7 responded to this, on a budget of nothing, by collecting shelter data from any and all shelters that published or otherwise released their intake and exit information; assembling the information to get reasonably complete counts for whole cities, counties, or states, as possible; and then proportionately weighting the data to get good geographical representation.
Focal problems changed with progress
ANIMALS 24-7 projected that the numbers of animals actually handled and killed by U.S. shelters in 1992 were about half of the American Humane Association estimate.
The National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy subsequently spent four years and half a million dollars to produce almost exactly the same estimate.
ANIMALS 24-7 went on to produce and publish increasingly complex estimates for each year, 1997-2014.
By 2011 the focal problem had become––and still is––a widespread misconception that increased adoptions can get the U.S. to no-kill animal control, regardless of the reality that “too many pets and not enough homes” does not address the issues presented by feral cats, who mostly never had homes, and dangerous dogs, mostly pit bulls, who cannot be responsibly rehomed or returned to their former homes.
Pet adoption rate per capita flatlined since 1982
The later ANIMALS 24-7 shelter traffic estimates spotlighted these issues, including that despite ever-increasing spending on adoption efforts, dog and cat adoption volume from shelters has virtually flatlined at between four and five million animals per year since 1982, when Richard Nasser did the first national survey of pet acquisitions.
Proportionate to the number of pet-keeping households, pet adoption volume from shelters has actually dropped steadily for more than 50 years.
What the numbers clearly showed was, and is, that increased spay/neuter efforts account for about 95% of the progress in reducing shelter killing from as high as 23.4 million dogs and cats per year in 1970, and 17.8 million in 1985, to circa 680,000 in 2023.
If becoming a no-kill nation is truly the goal, all the effort put into promoting adoptions is essentially beside the point.
The way to get there is to sterilize the animal populations at highest risk––feral cats and pit bulls––out of existence.
Which is exactly what ANIMALS 24-7 said, as keynote speaker, at the very first No Kill Conference in Phoenix in 1995.
The net outcome of the later ANIMALS 24-7 data tracking was that Maddie’s Fund and the Best Friends Animal Society, hellbent on promoting adoptions in denial of reality, insisted that the ANIMALS 24-7 data had to be wrong.
First, in 2004, Maddie’s Fund and the Best Friends Animal Society negotiated the Asilomar Accords, including a standardized data tracking protocol. ANIMALS 24-7 incorporated the data collected and posted using the Asilomar Accords into our system. Predictably, the proportionately weighted data did not change much.
Expanded data input
Another seven years of fulminating, politicking, and gnashing of teeth brought about the formation of Shelter Animals Count, producing annual shelter intake and exit reports since 2016.
Anticipating theirs, ANIMALS 24-7 quit producing ours, while raising many questions for Shelter Animals Count and others to try to answer going forward.
Ten years since then, Shelter Animals Count has enormously expanded the range of data input for annual estimates of shelter intake and exists, from about 600 organizations contributing to 100 data lines in our 2014 tables, to about 6,000, representative of 4,915 animal shelters and 9,514 shelterless rescues.
Shelter Animals Count has also added several more categories of data tracking, including interagency transfers and the numbers of cats “returned to field,” an approach to reducing intakes and euthanasias based on the notion that stray cats will find their own way home, just barely coming into vogue a decade ago.
Most significantly, explains Shelter Animals Count executive director Stephanie Filer, for reporting the 2023 data, “Using intake and outcome data from over 6,000 organizations nationwide, Shelter Animals Count developed a peer-reviewed estimation model that includes representative data from all animal sheltering organization types and sizes in all U.S. states and territories. Data was analyzed separately to account for organizational differences, and then combined for the national numbers shared in this report.”
In other words, except for the two words “peer-reviewed,” and except for having more than ten times as much input data to work with, Shelter Animals Count is now using essentially the same proportional weighting method that ANIMALS 24-7 used all along.
“Cats are experiencing a more hopeful trend”
What has Shelter Animals Count discovered relative to the post-COVID-19 spay/neuter gap?
The Shelter Animals Count findings pertaining to dogs will require a separate discussion, as already mentioned, because of the influence of pit bull intake, a factor that Shelter Animals Count leaves unmentioned and therefore unexplored.
“Cats are experiencing a more hopeful trend: 2.6 million cats were adopted in 2023, 14% more than 2019,” Shelter Animals Count says.
Combined with dog adoptions, U.S. animal shelters and rescues rehomed about 4.8 million animals in 2023, at the high end of the range since 1982.
Relative to U.S. human population, this represents a 17% decrease in the shelter adoption rate per capita.
Cat intakes “nearly on a par” with pre-COVID-19
“In 2023, community intakes for cats are nearly on par with 2019 [pre-COVID] levels,” Shelter Animals Count finds. “Stray intakes are down by 6% compared to 2019,” indicative of the continued success of neuter/return.
“Owner surrenders for cats have remained steady since 2021 (accounting for 25% of total intakes), but they are 8% higher (73,000 cats) than 2019 rates,” a finding possibly attributable to aging among the human population and to a nationwide housing shortage, obliging many cat-keepers to reluctantly give up pet cats.
Cat intakes up, but at slower rate
“Cats are also witnessing an uptick in non-live outcomes [mostly meaning euthanized], albeit at a slower rate,” Shelter Animals Count reports. “There was an 8% increase (34,000 more cats) compared to 2022 and a 3% increase (+15,000 cats) compared to 2021. However, the data shows a positive shift as 31% fewer cats (-198,000 cats) experienced non-live outcomes in 2023 compared to 2019. Died in care rates for cats have remained relatively flat since 2021.
“In 2023, the total number of cats entering shelters exceeded the number of cats leaving by 2%. This means there were an additional 70,000 cats still waiting for an outcome at the end of 2023.
“34,000 more cats were adopted compared to 2022, while 319,000 more cats were adopted compared to 2019. The percentage of intakes that resulted in an adoption has increased from 59% in 2019 to 65% in 2023,” according to Shelter Animals Count.
Return-to-field, as distinguished from neuter/return of truly feral cats to their habitat, “decreased from 7% in 2019 to 6% in 2023,” Shelter Animals Count says, meaning that “12,000 fewer cats were returned to field in 2023 compared to 2019, even with intakes very close to 2019 levels.”
Altogether, 363,000 cats were “returned to owner/field” in 2023, compared with 330,000 “euthanized in shelters.”