Playful, fun, loves to play, loves children, fetches, sweet, cuddles, hugs, funny, lap dog, great dog… These are descriptors we often hear our satisfied pet parents use when talking about their pets. But… Is this how those relinquishing their pets talk? Research conducted by the ASPCA Research & Development Team has found that yes—it is.
We focused our data collection around large dogs, as these are the canines most at risk in the areas studied. We have completed data sets from Washington, D.C. and New York City, collected from surveys with about 150 pet parents relinquishing their large dogs either at the Washington Humane Society or Animal Care & Control of New York City.
What we asked 150 pet parents
Our survey was developed by a team of experts—Dr. Stephen L. Zawistowski, Dr. Margaret Slater and myself—and is designed as an in-person interview at the time of intake. Our goal was to see if we could identify a subset of relinquishment reasons that we might be able to develop solutions for. Could we tailor safety net programming toward the needs identified? We were able to build on the work conducted in the ‘90s by the National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy.
"It is not uncommon for me to visit a shelter and hear an earful over how those who relinquish their pets just do not care—how they are different from us, and how they are cruel."
As the data started coming in, we were all struck by the answers to the question that asked, “What do you like best about the dog?” “That he cuddles” was one of the top answers. My heart sank when I read that Max’s relinquisher liked best that Max loved belly rubs. Jack’s relinquisher loved that Jack was so welcoming. Jezelle’s relinquisher liked best that she was loving.
Jezelle could have stayed in her home if her owner could have found temporary housing that allowed pets. Jack… he could have stayed home if they could have found more dog-friendly apartments.
I know what you are saying… that if that were you, you would have found a way to keep your dog. Maybe… maybe not. And maybe you have means and ways that they do not.
Research shows relinquishment is not a decision made lightly
It is not uncommon for me to visit a shelter and hear an earful over how those who relinquish their pets just do not care – how they (yep, you got it) are different from us, and they are cruel. Back in 1999 Natalie DiGiacomo, Arnold Arluke and Gary Patronek published a study focused on exploring the experience leading to the relinquishment of a pet. What they found was that all the relinquishers they surveyed struggled with the decision to give up their pet. Our research at the ASPCA seems to be showing the same: These folks were not making the decision lightly – and it took them time to come to the decision. Many of them had looked for other options before coming to the shelter.
At the time of this writing, the shelter in D.C. has embraced those coming to relinquish—providing support for those who simply need medical care to keep the pet. Hopefully, the next Max will be able to stay home and get his belly rubs.
Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB
ASPCA Vice President, Research & Development
Dr. Emily Weiss’ work at the ASPCA involves developing programs and processes that focus on impact on animal welfare. In her previous work as a behaviorist, she developed training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. She has also developed assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Dr. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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