SMU: Economic crisis leads to pet abandonment

By Stephanie Collins
spcollins@smu.edu

  • Families across the United States are finding it hard to keep up with the demanding costs of pet ownership.
  • The influx in pet betrayal is leaving animal shelters overpopulated and obligated to take action.

From the start of the economic crisis, one household member has suffered more than any other: the family pet. Pet abandonment has become a significant issue over the past few years, leading to larger problems such as animal shelter overcrowding, which often causes an increase in euthanasia.

During the year 2010 alone, Senior Animal Cruelty Investigator for the City of Dallas, Domanick Munoz, received 2,800 calls for animal cruelty complaints, and 20 percent of those calls were related to abandonment. Munoz noted that these staggering numbers do not include pets abandoned in a way that was not categorized as “cruel.” Many pet owners not included in this statistic acknowledged that they must surrender their pets to animal shelters once they could no longer care for them, and did not leave them unattended or unable to feed themselves.

According to Munoz, cases of animal abandonment are always categorized as either animal cruelty related or non-cruelty related. For abandonment to be considered cruelty, the animal has to have been left alone without a way to get food or water, and without anyone to care for it, according to Munoz.

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There is no official count for the number of non-cruelly surrendered pets for the city, “but the number is huge,” said Munoz, who added that the Dallas Animal Services shelter receives newly abandoned pets daily.

The amount of abandoned pets in Dallas reflects the recent economic hard times, according to Munoz. “The economy really hurt us. Because of the amount of foreclosures and people losing their jobs, they basically vacated their homes and left their animals behind,” said Munoz.

Abandonment does not only mean that a pet loses its comfortable home, however. It can also endanger its life. Because of the high volume of abandoned pets, Dallas animal shelters are overwhelmed and overcrowded, according to Munoz. “Overcrowding has increased our euthanasia rate. We are not able to house all of the animals so we have to put them to sleep if we can’t give them away to rescue groups,” said Munoz.

Munoz said that Dallas residents have seemed more inclined to adopt animals from shelters after the past year’s high rate of abandonment. Munoz attributed this willingness to the city’s heavy campaigning for adoption, in addition to a city ordinance passed during the last year which mandates that all pets be spayed or neutered to prevent unwanted puppies and kittens who may end up in shelters.

“There are too many animals in shelters right now. It is very important that people understand that shelter animals should be their first choice,” said Operation Kindness Volunteer of 7 years, Nancy Burger.

Operation Kindness is a no-kill animal shelter, which rescues animals that have been abandoned or that are at risk of being put to sleep at other shelters, and puts them up for adoption.

“Hardly a day goes by that our director of animal care doesn’t get a call from a shelter saying there are some really good dogs on the list to be put down,” said Burger. Organizations like Operation Kindness rescue these animals and give them a second chance to be adopted.

Due to economic hard times, and a preference for purebred animals, however, not enough people are adopting pets to keep up with the number of those abandoned.

According to Burger, there currently are approximately 9 million pets up for adoption in the United States, and less than one million will be adopted.

Pet owner Nicolle Keogh adopted her dog, a beagle named Charlie, when he was two years old. “I get sad every time I think about what would have happened if I had walked out of the shelter without adopting Charlie. Who knows where he would be now,” said Keogh, who added, “He is just as cute as any purebred dog.”

According to Burger, people looking for a new pet are often lured into stores supplied by puppy mills because they think the pets are cuter. Not only does supporting a puppy mill not help the problem of overcrowding in animal shelters, it is also inhumane.

A puppy mill, according to Burger, is a breeder who keeps dogs “in small cages and breeds them over and over,” often in an attempt to achieve the “cutest” color and size of dog. Large chain pet stores such as Petland have been accused of supporting puppy mills, according to Burger, while animal shelters treat pets humanely and care for them until the right person is able to adopt them.

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