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Maxed Out: Studying the Impact of the Economic Recession on Pet Overpopulation

By Alex Jimenez

From late-night emergency department visits to the need for regular vaccinations, dogs and cats can prove to be some very costly—though well worth it—companions. Many scientists and veterinarians have wondered if the hefty price pet owners pay has become more cumbersome, or even cost prohibitive, during the recent economic recession and, if so, what that means for pets whose people can’t afford them.  

To find out more about the recession’s affect on pet ownership, Morris Animal Foundation gave two scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign funds to undertake a study aimed at figuring out if and how the struggling economy is affecting the bottom line when it comes to an already massive problem—pet overpopulation. The study, conducted by Dr. Marilyn Ruiz and Dr. Hsin-Yi Weng, looked at the relinquishment, adoption and euthanasia rates in cats and dogs as well as the associated risk factors recorded within the past two decades.  

The study was built around a cooperative partnership with the Anti-Cruelty Society (ACS) in Chicago. ACS runs one of the largest shelters in the area and has kept thorough electronic records of every animal brought in and out of the shelter since 1990, giving the investigators the data needed to compare long-term patterns. In addition to the retrospective data, dog and cat owners who surrendered their animals to the ACS during October 2009 and May 2010 were asked to complete a survey asking for information on ownership of the pet(s), reasons for relinquishment and demographic information about the animals and the owners. Researchers compared relinquishment trends from that survey with data from a similar study done by the National Council of Pet Population Study and Policy in 1994–1997.  

So what did they find? On a positive note, the study did not provide any conclusive data that more dogs or cats are being surrendered than in previous years or that financial difficulty is a growing reason for relinquishment. However, the research found a clear distinction in the number of people adopting, which has decreased since the recession started in 2007. In addition, the decline in adoption rates was much higher in dogs than in cats, mostly because of the higher costs associated with owning a dog. The resulting decline in adoptions has, sadly, led to increases in the number of euthanasias since the recession began, mostly in adult animals. 

In other words, once owners are committed to having a pet, financial burdens brought on by the tough economy have not deterred owners from keeping their pets. But, unfortunately, the uncertain financial time has discouraged many potential owners from adopting new pets. This has led to overpopulated shelters and thus more animals having to be euthanized.  

For shelters, the study findings may not be the best news, but the information is extremely helpful. The study provides important insights for shelters to better prepare for the continued effects of the recession on animal ownership. The results suggest that promoting animal adoptions, even in uncertain times, could be the best way to keep euthanasia rates from booming.