Why More Dogs and Cats Are Leaving Animal Shelters Alive

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The majority of animals at shelters are now rescued or returned to their owners. Janyaruk Pongpom/Shutterstock

There's a scary scene in the original animated version of Disney's "Lady and the Tramp." Sweet Lady has just been nabbed by a dog catcher and is in the pound. The canine residents joke about that no-good Tramp, but they all grow silent as a pup begins "takin' the long walk" through a door from which no dog returns.

It's a scene that has played out in real life all too often in animal shelters around the country in recent decades as pet overpopulation and shelter overcrowding have made euthanasia an unfortunate solution. But that scene has begun to change.

According to a New York Times investigation, pet euthanasia rates have fallen dramatically in big cities over the past decade, dropping more than 75% since 2009.

For its research, the Times collected data from municipal shelters in the country's 20 largest cities, pointing out that most don't track information in the same way or make it readily available. Although they do their best to get animals out alive — to adopters, rescue groups or back to their owners if they have them — shelters often are criticized by animal lovers for euthanizing any animals at all.

"We all agree that even one euthanasia is too much," Inga Fricke, the former director of sheltering initiatives at the Humane Society of the United States, told the Times. She said that may shelters face difficult expectations and operate with different degrees of political and community support.

"Shelters shouldn't be condemned for the numbers they have if they are genuinely doing what they can," she said.

Why numbers are falling

A kitten wears a cone after spay or neuter surgery.
One of the factors that has changed the tide is increased awareness of the importance of spay and neuter programs. Carl Dupont/Shutterstock

One reason euthanasia rates have dropped is that fewer dogs are entering shelters in the first place, thanks in part to a huge push to spay and neuter pets that started in the 1970s.

According to a study in the journal Animals, only 10.9% of the licensed dogs in the city of Los Angeles were sterilized in 1971, for example. Within a few years, the percentage had vaulted to 50%. Now it's nearly 100%.

The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association points out several other statistics that show spaying and neutering animals works to slow down euthanasia rates.

Shelter euthanasia in Asheville, North Carolina, dropped by 79% after the establishment of a low-cost spay and neuter clinic. Similarly, a low-cost spay and neuter program in Jacksonville, Florida, led to a 37% decrease in shelter euthanasia in three years.

Another reason euthanasia rates are dropping is that more shelter dogs are being adopted — and it doesn't matter if a dog is purebred. Instead, with celebrities showing off their Instagram-friendly rescue dogs, normal people are also jumping on the mixed-breed bandwagon.

And with states in the northern half of the country doing a better job with spay and neuter, southern rescues in Louisiana and Georgia and other places with packed kennels are shipping their homeless pets to Maryland, Wisconsin and throughout New England where the shelters are empty. So instead of lingering in overcrowded shelters, homeless dogs and cats are heading to locales rich with potential adopters who have been on waiting lists for pets.

Working toward 'no-kill'

puppy at animal shelter
'No-kill' shelters only euthanize animals that are extremely sick or that can't be rehabilitated. Pongsatorn Singnoy/Shutterstock

With an estimated 733,000 dogs and cats euthanized in animal shelters every year, we're still a long way from saving them all, points out Best Friends Animal Society. That's a national save rate of about 76.6%, but the group is pushing to achieve no-kill for dogs and cats at shelters nationwide by 2025.

But "no kill" isn't as simple as it seems. Most rescue groups define the term with footnotes. It usually means saving healthy and treatable animals, with euthanasia reserved for only those animals who are severely unhealthy or who can't be rehabilitated. Best Friends defines "no kill" as when nine out of 10 dogs leave a shelter alive. Some shelters call this a "live release" rate instead of a "no kill" rate.

And the key is to find the perfect compromise where no unhealthy or dangerous dogs are released into the community and shelters aren't overcrowded so illnesses can be spread and healthy animals won't have to be euthanized.