Conference discusses “pet overpopulation”

Experts target the “disease of euthanasia”

Recently Gary Patronek VMD, PhD, stood in front of 200 purebred dog rescue advocates in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and said that “pet overpopulation” is a meaningless term.

Patronek, acting director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, said that rather than focusing on “overpopulation,” evidence shows that shelters and rescuers would do better to target the “disease of euthanasia” — which may be responsible for 30 percent of all canine deaths.

The occasion was the annual rescue conference of the Michigan Purebred Dog Rescue Alliance. During his talk Patronek praised the success of efforts to reduce numbers — shelter deaths are down to five or six million animals, he said, sterilization of pets has reached 63 percent of all dogs and 80 percent of all owned cats and shelter intakes are down. He also presented studies to define the extent of the current problem in various areas and to suggest strategies for intervention to save animals in the future.

But “pet overpopulation” has taken on a life of its own. The term has gained wide acceptance because it has been used to define the killing of healthy and adoptable dogs and cats in animal shelters first by national organizations and then by local shelters and animal welfare advocates throughout the country. Patronek said that the reluctance to shift from an emphasis on alleged “overpopulation” to a multi-faceted strategy to prevent shelter euthanasia is based on several factors, including:

Patronek presented several studies that indicate that dogs are surrendered to animal shelters for a variety of reasons, most of which can be traced to a behavior problem. People who surrender their dogs for inappropriate elimination, excessive barking, aggression, destruction, and other problems often do not visit the veterinarian or take the dog to obedience classes, two actions that could keep the dog in the home. Dogs that visit veterinarians and those that attend obedience classes are far more likely to remain in their homes, he said.

Patronek's research can be interpreted to show that intervention is needed to help people buy the right breed or select the right shelter dog and train that dog so it has good manners and meets owner expectations for a pet. Purebred rescue groups and responsible breeders understand the issues and make every attempt to place the dog in a compatible home and provide training advice when necessary. Shelters are coming around to that point. Adoption outreach, counseling to help people choose an appropriate pet, cooperative efforts with rescue groups and obedience clubs, and other programs are becoming more and more common throughout the country. The San Francisco SPCA has been so successful with its adoption program and fund-raising efforts that it hosts workshops to share its expertise.

Statistics indicate that 84 percent of people who want a dog are looking for a puppy. Although adult dogs can make wonderful pets, people who want a puppy are hard to convince. Patronek's scientific approach puts a new perspective on ways to keep those puppies in their homes and to find homes for those that get displaced by changes in life circumstances.

For more information on pet population issues see:

Norma Bennett Woolf

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