Homing and Re-homing Fido: How many newly-adopted pets are still kept six months later?

Six months after being adopted, it turns out that 10% of those dogs and cats are no longer in their new home.

A black-and-white kitten and a spaniel at the window of a house in summer

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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When people adopt a new pet, why do some of them re-home the pet before six months is up? And how many actually still have the pet in the home? These are the questions asked in a new survey for the American Humane Association, funded by PetSmart.

Every year in the US, 3 to 4 million homeless dogs and cats are euthanized. Understanding how many pets are not kept, and the reasons why, is essential to finding ways to solve the problem of pet overpopulation. The problem is not unique to the US. A sizeable proportion of animals arrive at shelters as owner surrenders (e.g. rabbits (Cook and McCobb, 2012); cats (CFHS, 2013), and there are animal welfare issues, as well as economic costs (Stavisky et al 2012).

The AHA survey is the second phase of a three-part study. The first part investigated barriers to the adoption of dogs and cats, and the next stage will consider possible interventions.

The survey took place in three mid-sized cities that have both an animal control shelter and a private shelter: Charlotte, N.C., Denver, C.O. and Fort Worth, Texas.  People who had adopted a cat or dog from either the shelter or animal control about six months earlier were contacted and asked to take part. The response rate varied from 33% in Fort Worth to 60% in Charlotte. This may not sound very high, but is actually good for this kind of survey, and highlights one of the problems of conducting research on real-life issues.

In total, 572 people took part. Approximately half of the participants had adopted a cat and half had adopted a dog; half of the pets were male and half were female. Most of the homes did not have children living in them, although some did. For almost a quarter of the participants, this was the first time they had owned a pet as an adult.

Six months after adoption, 10% of the pets were no longer in the home. Of these, 42% had been returned to the shelter; the rest had been lost, died, or given to someone else. Nearly two-thirds of the animals that were not kept were given up within two months of the adoption. In fact, a quarter had left within two weeks of being adopted.

This tells us that any policies or interventions designed to improve retention rates need to be aimed at the very beginning period after adoption. One possibility might be to improve the information that goes home with the pet when it is first adopted, or for the shelter to keep in touch with new adoptees during the first couple of weeks.

Some animal behaviour problems were related to surrender, including soiling, barking, being disobedient, destructive, or unfriendly to humans. This ties in with other research. For example, a recent study found that behavioural problems are a common reason for dogs to be surrendered (Kwan and Bain 2013). Most shelters already identify potential behavioural issues and provide advice at the point of adoption, but perhaps there could be ways to improve it or encourage people to follow it. Kwan and Bain's paper also found that people who surrender dogs have lower attachment than people who are keeping their pets, suggesting that advice could emphasize building the bond between a new owner and their pet.

Another interesting piece of information from this survey relates to where people turned if they needed advice on their new pet. People who asked friends and family, or their vet, were very likely to keep the pet, but those who asked the shelter were much less likely to keep it. At first glance this may sound like the shelters were not giving good advice, but the likelihood is that the shelter was a ‘last resort’ for advice before returning the pet, or something people felt they ought to do before returning it.

If shelters are aware that these calls for help mean the pet is at risk of return, they can concentrate on helping the person find a solution. For example, it may be difficult for shelter staff to find the time to spend on these calls during a busy day, so perhaps one member of staff should have responsibility for this and specialize in providing counselling. 

There were no differences in retention rates of pets who had a visit to a vet compared to those who didn’t. Also – and this will surprise some people – there was no difference in retention rate between people who had spent a long time on research before the adoption, and those who acted on impulse. It's possible that some people do research because they already have doubts about adopting an animal.

Sleeping on the bed was a good sign, as these pets were more likely to be kept than those who slept somewhere else in the house. (Interestingly, sleeping outside was not a risk factor for surrender).

Animal shelters and rescues want to find good homes for animals, and usually have a contract that specifies they should be returned to them if they are not kept. While a rate of ten per cent of dogs and cats no longer being in the home six months after adoption is high, it should be remembered that there are no comparative figures for animals obtained from other sources, such as pet stores or internet ads. Many dogs and cats are acquired from places with no return policy or option, which leaves them in a vulnerable position should something go wrong. This is especially worrisome since a recent study found that puppies from pet stores are more likely to have behavioural problems.

The full report from the AHA is available to read at the link below, and has a list of suggested strategies for animal shelters and rescues that includes working to reduce barriers to pet ownership and offering behavioural support to improve the relationship between people and their pets.

Have you ever adopted a pet on impulse?

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. 

American Humane Association (2013) Keeping pets (dogs and cats) in homes: A three-phase retention study. Phase II: Descriptive study of post-adoption retention in six shelters in three US cities. Available online at: https://www.americanhumane.org/app/uploads/2016/08/petsmart-keeping-pets-phase-ii.pdf
Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (2012) Cats in Canada: A Comprehensive Report on the Cat Overpopulation Crisis. Available online at the CFHS http://cfhs.ca/athome/cat_overpopulation_crisis/.
Cook, A. J., & McCobb, E. (2012). Quantifying the shelter rabbit population: An analysis of Massachusetts and Rhode Island animal shelters. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 15(4), 297-312.
Kwan, J. Y., & Bain, M. J. (2013). Owner attachment and problem behaviors related to relinquishment and training techniques of dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 16(2), 168-183.
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.

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