It isn’t difficult to find a caring home for one cat or dog. But millions roam the world and there aren’t enough shelters. What do we do with them all?

Stella, an animal too aggressive to be likely adopted.

Stella, a gray cat, waits to be adopted. Credit: Riya Patel

 This article, by high school student Riya Patel, was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Riya is a student at the Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

“Ouch!” cried Lauren as she was trying to clean up one of the cat cages. A gray-furred cat with bright green eyes named Stella had bitten Lauren, a volunteer at Cecil County Animal Services where I work in the U.S state of Maryland.

Stella soon found herself in one of the back rooms with other cats considered ‘aggressive’. Animals that have a history of biting will rarely find a home, especially if, like Stella, they are on the older side.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, of the 6.3 million animals that enter shelters in the U.S., only about 4.1 million are adopted. Maryland alone euthanizes 45,000 cats and dogs each year costing the state as much as $9 million.

The World Health Organization estimates that some 525,000 dogs roam free across the globe, and they carry with them the danger of rabies.

Euthanization is a common way shelters in the U.S. control the amount of abandoned pets. But not all shelters that euthanize pets are considered ‘kill-shelters’.

Can we find homes for homeless pets?

Katie Flory is the community care and advocacy director at the Maryland SPCA in Baltimore. “The true definition of no-kill is that you are saving over 90% of the animals that come through your door,” Flory said. “Our live release rate fluctuates between 92% and 96%.”

Live release means that an animal is adopted, reclaimed by owners or transferred to another shelter. Flory said there are two reasons the other animals cannot be adopted out.

“Either they are so ill that their quality of life is suffering or they are aggressive to the point that it would be dangerous and irresponsible to put them out into the community,” Flory said.

The SPCA in Baltimore is a private shelter — they do not have to take in every animal that enters their doors. But other shelters, such as Cecil County Animal Services, are open-admission and are obligated to take in every animal that needs refuge.

Cecil has kept its euthanization rate to only 5% for dogs and 7% for cats. It has the highest live release number for an open shelter in the state of Maryland.

“Pandemic puppies” returned to shelters

Abigail Bingham directs animal services at Cecil. She said that the shelter is short staffed and can find itself overwhelmed by the amount of animals confined in such a small space. Because of the large number of cats and kittens the shelter is currently holding, Cecil also offers free cat adoptions, which includes vaccinations, spay and neutering and microchipping.

Once COVID emerged in the U.S., the amount of people opening up their homes to pets dramatically increased. According to the ASPCA, more than 23 million U.S. families adopted a pet during the course of the pandemic.

Although this spike in adoptions may be viewed as a good thing for Maryland shelters, many new pet owners failed to understand the full impact that caring for an animal had on their day-to-day lives once they started going back to work. Some might not have realized the long term costs.

According to ASPCA Pet Heath Insurance, a partnership between the ASPCA and PTZ Insurance Agency, Ltd., owning a large dog can cost pet owners as much as $1,000 a year — more if you add on the costs of a dog walker/sitter, costs of damage your dog causes or unexpected medical expenses.

Most dogs that were born during quarantine — also known as ‘pandemic puppies’  — lack traditional training and social skills, which now leaves many dogs with extra stress and separation anxiety. This makes it that much harder to find homes for them.

Oversupply of animals, too few veterinarians

To add to this, due to a shortage of veterinarians during the lockdown, the amount of spay surgeries performed dramatically decreased. This exacerbated the problem in underfunded shelters.

Katie Dixon, the Humane Society’s shelter director in Baltimore, said that the organization has seen an increase in owners taking their adopted pets back to shelters.

Even though both the SPCA in Baltimore and the Cecil County shelter have given their best efforts into ensuring that as many animals as possible leave their shelters alive, the number of abandoned animals continues to increase. So could there be a better solution?

Germany has the largest animal shelter in Europe. Tierschutzverein für Berlin accommodates more than 2,000 animals both small and large.

Even if an animal is never adopted from there, it can spend the rest of its life living in an environment where it is properly cared for. They have an animal protection farm for livestock and their own veterinary practice.

Although surely expensive, would it not make more sense for us to create more of these animal sanctuaries in our own communities instead of spending so much money on a temporary solution such as euthanasia?

At Maryland SPCA, Flory says that keeping an animal healthy and mentally stable is difficult in a shelter environment, without enough funding. “Until the government places importance on this issue I don’t see it happening in many places,” Flory said.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why can’t we find homes for all homeless pets?
  2. How did the Covid pandemic affect the number of pets needing homes?
  3. What are some ways we can reduce the number of abandoned pets without killing them?

Riya Patel is a student at the Tatnall School in the U.S. state of Delaware. Riya likes reading and painting and plans to go to university to study biomedical engineering. 

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