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Animal Sheltering Trends in the U.S.

A historical lesson from—and for—U.S. animal shelters

The Humane Society of the United States

by Andrew N. Rowan Ph.D.

As we try to address the daily challenges we face because of the millions of dogs and cats who end up in shelters across the country every year, it is common for the 35,000 or so workers involved in animal sheltering to lose sight of the tremendous advances that have been made to date. 

While there is still much to be done to ensure that we end the euthanasia of healthy and adoptable dogs and cats (and push that definition so that we can save larger numbers of shelter dogs and cats), it is useful to look at the trends and try to determine what programs have led to improvements over the past three to four decades. 

Timeline:  Prior to 1970 1970s  |  1980s  |  1990s  |  Today  | 20__?

Prior to 1970

Milestone: Shelter populations and euthanasia rates peak: 100 cats and dogs killed per 1,000 people

Before 1970, it is generally agreed that animal shelter populations and euthanasia rates in the U.S. were rapidly increasing and that shelters were routinely euthanizing over 100 dogs and cats per 1,000 people in their communities. [One needs to use a "standardized" measure in order to track the trends in animals handled, euthanized and "saved" from euthanasia. The community's human population is a readily available number and, all things being equal, it is reasonable to assume that the more humans in the community, the more dogs and cats there will be.] 


Milestone: First low-cost spay/neuter clinic opens in Los Angeles

The 1970's proved to be a defining decade in decreasing euthanasia trends in animal shelters. In 1971, the first low-cost spay/neuter clinic was established by an animal shelter (in Los Angeles). This clinic launched an impassioned national debate about the issue and private practice veterinarians began to perform surgical sterilizations at a much greater rate. 

The impact of this change in the behavior of private practitioners can be seen by the increased proportion of licensed dogs (from 10 percent in 1971 to 51 percent in 1975) that were sterilized in Los Angeles. [It can be calculated that, in order to increase the proportion of sterilized dogs by this amount, the private practitioners had to perform about 90 percent of the sterilization operations with the low-cost clinic doing the rest). The number of animals handled annually by shelters entered a period of rapid decline—especially in the west and northeast. 


Milestone: Declining shelter numbers level off

The decline in the number of animals handled by shelters leveled off in the 1980s. I speculate that sterilization procedures were viewed as an elective option in private veterinary clinics and performed only when requested by the clients.



  • Sterilization becomes routine; clients must choose to "opt out" 
  • Feral cat TNVR programs emerge along with high volume spay/neuter clinics
  • Euthanasia rates of dogs and cats in shelters drops to 10 percent of 1970 figure

By the 1990s, private practice veterinarians were starting to offer young animal health programs that included sterilization procedures as part of the wellness and vaccination check-ups. Clients now had to "opt-out" if sterilization was not wanted.

As a result, shelter dog numbers began to decline again while the numbers of cats inched up somewhat—leading to the widespread feeling that cat numbers were "out of control."

This led to the launching of numerous feral cat TNVR programs and we also began to see an expansion of high volume spay/neuter programs. Today, the rate of euthanasia of dogs and cats in shelters has dropped to around 12.5 dogs and cats per 1,000 people—or about 10 percent of what it was in 1970!


Milestone: The number of cats and dogs in U.S. households has more than doubled in the past four decades

As a nation, Americans have become much more aware of animal welfare issues in the past four decades. As the human population has increased, the number of animals welcomed into American homes each year has also gone up. National shelter statistics show that the number of cats and dogs has steadily increased (even though the percentage of households with cats and dogs has remained relatively steady).

From 1973 to 2007, the number of cats and dogs in U.S. households more than doubled and animal shelter euthanasia rates dropped by more than 60%.

The cost of saving lives

Animal welfare expenditures have increased over the past few decades. In 1972, American shelters spent approximately $800 million on animal welfare versus around $2,400 million in 2007.
In trying to tease out the impact of different initiatives and programs on the improvement in shelter euthanasia rates, one can now gather data on the amount of money spent on animal sheltering in some communities and compare those expenditures with standardized outcome numbers (number of dogs and cats "handled" per 1,000 people, the number of dogs and cats "euthanized" per 1,000 people, and the number of dogs and cats "saved" per 1,000 people).

When one does this for different communities and then plots the results, there is a direct correlation between the dollars spent per capita on shelters and the decrease in shelter populations/euthanasia.

Cost per capita

On average, communities in the United States

  • Spend approximately $8 per capita for animal shelters
  • Handle on average around 30 animals per 1,000 people
  • Euthanize about 12.5 animals per 1,000 people

Example: Multnomah County, Oregon

For example, Multnomah County, Oregon spends about $16 per capita for animal shelters, handles on average around 30 animals per 1,000 people, but only euthanizes about 7 animals per 1,000 people.

Demographic variances

Of course, there will be outliers among the communities and also regional differences in these numbers. 

Example: Northeast Region vs. NYC

For example, shelters in the Northeast typically handle less than 20 animals per 1,000 people while many large, dense urban cities have very low rates of both animals handled and animals euthanized.

We do not know if the low rates of animals handled in New York City are because dense urban centers have far fewer dogs and cats in households than the suburbs, or because there are relatively few shelters in the five boroughs of New York, or some other reason.

Interpreting the numbers

As the saying goes, you have to know where you've been to know where you are going. It is very important to have precise data documentation and data standardization if we are to accurately learn from our past successes and failures.

Standardization of data reporting will allow us to make reasonable comparisons across communities but we will then need to probe the details of the numbers in order to understand just what the community-wide number of $8 per capita on shelters means.

Cost-effective approaches

For example, if a community spends a relatively large percentage on enforcement rather than low-cost spay/neuter, how will its success compare with a community that does the opposite.
Standardization would include numerical recording standards for financial data, public outreach & enforcement data and categorized euthanasia data (treatable, potentially treatable & not treatable—as currently directed by the Asilomar Accords).

In addition, there needs to be standard definitions for the data collected (see chart below). There are wide variations in the successes of animal shelters from one community to another.  By implementing standardized data collection for each city/county/state, we can better track progress and identify most effective methods to initiate.


Milestone: Becoming a nation where no healthy and adoptable animal is euthanized in a shelter

The United States still has many challenges to overcome in our animal shelters. The U.S. currently has around 3,350 shelters and a large and increasing number of non-sheltered rescue and fostering groups that help to alleviate some of the influx into shelters.

Researchers are developing more effective and efficient data collection and comparison methods to better track progress. We are facing exciting and challenging times as we begin to close in on the possibility of a nation where no healthy and adoptable animal is euthanized in a shelter. 

Reaching that goal will require not only the continuing enthusiasm and energy of the nation's shelters and rescue operations but also a more sophisticated understanding of what works, what doesn't and what we need to do to manage efficiently the flows of pets into and out of people's homes. 

This article was adopted from a presentation given January 21, 2009 at the Pegasus Foundation Workshop in Martin County, Florida (at the Caring Fields Sanctuary) by Andrew N. Rowan Ph.D., president and CEO of Humane Society International and Chief Scientific Officer of the Humane Society of the United States.

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