Homeless Pets: A UK Survey

This survey found out how many homeless dogs and cats there are in the UK - and the outcomes for them.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

This page contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

The problem of pet overpopulation and homelessness is well known. Getting accurate figures for the number of homeless pets is a more difficult undertaking, since many organizations are responsible for stray and homeless animals. The results of a survey in the UK were recently published, and provide useful information about the scale of the problem, the wait times for animals to be accepted into rescue, and the likely outcome of their stay.

The survey was conducted by Jenny Stavisky and colleagues at the University of Nottingham. They sent a questionnaire to all the rescue organizations they could identify in the UK. They used a snowballing technique, asking each organization to suggest other groups that they should contact. They identified over 2300 contacts, and got an excellent response rate of close to 40%. In some cases, the head office of an organization provided some information, while other details came from the branches.

A lonely pomeranian lies down on the street
Photo: Sergey Skleznev / Shutterstock

The results show that during 2010, the organizations in the survey cared for 156,826 cats and 89,571 dogs. (Remember the real number of homeless animals in the UK will be much greater, since some organizations did not participate). About half of the animals were handed in by their owners, while others came in as strays or were seized because of animal welfare problems. 

The good news is that 77% of the cats and 75% of the dogs were rehomed. Sadly, though, the second most common outcome was euthanasia: 13% of cats and 10% of dogs were euthanized. In other words, 13,000 cats and 9,000 dogs were put to sleep. Although some may have been euthanized because of serious health or behavioural issues, it is inevitable that healthy, adoptable animals were euthanized too.

Another major problem was waiting lists, with 62% reporting a waiting list for cats and 44% reporting a waiting list for dogs. On average, the waiting list for dogs was equivalent to a third of the capacity of the shelters, and for cats it was even greater at half the shelter capacity. The worst case was an organization that had a waiting list of more than 16 times the number of dogs they could accommodate.

The survey also found that these organizations depend heavily on volunteers. Although over 19,000 people were involved in the animals’ care, over 76% of them were part-time volunteers.  The costs are also high; in total, the organizations spent close to 330,000 pounds in the 2009-2010 financial year.

It is difficult to calculate the total number of un-owned dogs and cats in the UK from this survey. The main animal welfare organizations all took part, and most of the organizations that did not respond were small, but it is hard to generalize from these figures. Organizations also differ in terms of euthanasia policies. 

For anyone in the unfortunate position of needing to rehome a dog, one piece of advice we can take from this study is to go through a breed-specific rescue if possible, as these tended to have shorter waiting lists than places that take in dogs of all breeds/cross-breeds.

The study concludes that there is a sizeable population of un-owned cats and dogs in the UK. They say that “despite substantial quantities of manpower and money expended on these animals, it appears that at this time there is still a continual flow of animals out of ownership and into the guardianship of rescues and shelters.” 

The survey was conducted at a time of recession in the UK, which may have increased animal relinquishment, although a study in Chicago found only a slight difference. The problem is multifactorial, and it is likely that better education of pet owners, spay and neuter programs, campaigns for better provision of pet-friendly housing, and greater support for animal adoption would all help. You can read the results of a recent AHA survey on barriers to animal adoption here.

If you liked this post, you might like my books Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy

What do you think should be done to reduce the number of un-owned cats and dogs?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Stavisky, J., Brennan, M. L., Downes, M., & Dean, R. (2012). Demographics and economic burden of un-owned cats and dogs in the UK: results of a 2010 census. BMC Veterinary Research, 8, 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1186/1746-6148-8-163 

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate and Marks and Spencer affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Follow me!

Support me