Why Don’t People Want Pets? Part 1: Cats

What stops people from adopting cats from shelters?

By Zazie Todd, PhD

The American Humane Association is investigating how to increase the adoption and retention of animals from shelters. It’s a pressing question because, in the US, 3 to 4 million animals are euthanized every year even though they are healthy and adoptable.

The first part of the study, funded by PetSmart Charities, looked at the reasons why people choose not to have a cat or dog. They interviewed people who had previously had a cat or dog but don’t have one now, and those who have never had a pet as an adult. The results make depressing reading, especially for cat lovers. This week I will focus on what the results mean for cats, and next week I will look at what they say about dogs.

A tabby cat dozing on a table
Photo: wjarek / Shutterstock

People who had previously owned a cat were most likely to have got the animal from a friend, family or neighbour. About a fifth (18%) had got their cat from a shelter. A sizeable number of cats had arrived as strays (22%). For most of the people in this sample, their cat had died of natural causes or been put to sleep; some were still grieving for their pet. The second most common reason for no longer having the cat was giving it up because it wasn’t allowed at the place of residence (e.g. because the landlord said no pets).

Amongst people who had previously owned a cat, the main reason for not having one now was travelling too much (28%) and cleaning up (25%), although vet costs and general costs were also important (25% and 24% respectively). It has to be said that these are sensible reasons why a pet might not fit into one’s lifestyle, and an awareness of the costs is important, especially since companion animals have suffered from the effects of the recession too.

The really bad news for cats comes from people who had never owned one before.  The main reason they gave was that they “just don’t like them” (35%). The other main reasons were the smell of a litter box (29%) and lifestyle (22%). 

When asked how likely they were to consider having a cat, only about a third of previous owners would consider one. Amongst those who had never owned one, only 10% said they would consider one, whereas 61% said ‘definitely not’. Young adults (18-34) were most likely to consider another pet, and seniors generally did not want to. 

Both groups of people were quite likely to say that they would go to a shelter for a pet. Future research could use the theory of planned behaviour to assess how likely these good intentions are to make it into reality, depending on people’s attitudes and subjective norms about animal shelters.

This survey provides valuable information for animal rescue organizations about how to target adoption messages, and what the barriers to increased adoptions are. It would help if more housing was pet-friendly, since that was a major reason for cats being given up. These results also show that cats have an image problem. I find this hard to understand – how can someone not like cats? 

I wonder if people without ‘cat experience’ find them difficult to understand.  If this is the case, then campaigns should aim to make cats more familiar, and to counter the widespread misperception that cats cannot be trained. The smell of a litter box was also mentioned as a barrier, although if the box is kept clean any smell should be minimal. The fact that costs were cited by previous owners suggests they have a more realistic perception of the responsibilities of ownership compared to those who have never owned a cat. Of course, if people don’t want or can’t afford an animal, they are absolutely right not to get one; but with so many cats in shelters and in need of a home, it would help if more homes were available. 

So, let’s hear it for the cats. What do you like about your cat?

Nest week's post is about what the survey found about why people don't want dogs.

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
Reference
AHA and PetSmart (2012) Keeping pets (dogs and cats) in homes: A three-phase retention study. Available online at www.americanhumane.org/aha-petsmart-retention-study-phase-1.pdf

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