America’s Changing Relationship with the Pet Dog

How pet dogs moved from the streets to their owner’s beds, adoptions from shelters went up, and euthanasia rates went down.

How America's pet dogs moved from the streets to their owner's beds. Photo shows a Golden Retriever puppy in bed.
Photo: NotarYES/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

From large numbers of free-ranging dogs in the 70s, fast forward to today where many pet dogs sleep in their owner’s bed, and you can see how much Americans love their dogs.

A review of the dog and shelter dog population from the early 1970s to today by Dr. Andrew Rowan (Humane Society of the United States) and Tamara Kartal (Humane Society International) charts some encouraging trends.

Shelter Euthanasia Rates

In the 70s, an estimated 25% of dogs in the US were allowed to run free in the streets. In 1973, The HSUS estimated that 20% of America’s dogs and cats were euthanized in animal shelters.

That’s 35 million dogs and cats in one year.

Animals arriving at shelters were typically looked after for 3-7 days (in case they were claimed by the owner) and then euthanized.

In 2010, the proportion of pet dogs euthanized by shelters each year is estimated at just below 2.5% of the dog population.

American changing relationship with the pet dog includes declines in shelter euthanasia rates, shown here
Since the 1970s, shelter euthanasia rates for dogs and cats have dropped substantially. Figure from Rowan & Kartal (2018) reproduced under Creative Commons licence

Responsible Pet Ownership

In the mid-late 70s, groups such as The HSUS, American Humane Association, and the National Animal Control Association began to campaign on responsible pet ownership.

This included the idea that people should spay or neuter their pets. One factor the review identifies as important in encouraging this is the introduction of differential licensing fees that mean people who do not spay/neuter their dog have to pay more in their licence fee.

"95% of people say their pets are family members, according to a 2015 survey"

The development of clinics that offer low-cost spay/neuter surgeries is another factor in reducing the number of unwanted pets.

These days, the proportion of dogs that are spayed or neutered is very high – the review says almost 100% for dogs in Los Angeles compared to just under 11% in 1971.

Dog Adoption Rates and Microchips

Another big change mentioned in the report is the increased numbers of people who adopt dogs from animal shelters and rescues. They say that from 2010 the rate of adoptions increased such that it helped to reduce euthanasia rates at shelters.

A national advertising campaign that began in 2009 is credited as helping to increase the number of pet adoptions. (Incidentally, research shows that most people who adopt a shelter dog say the dog meets their expectations and that most cat and dog adopters are satisfied with their new pet).

Another factor in reducing euthanasia rates, although not as big as adoptions, is the increase in shelters’ abilities to return lost pets to their owners. As more and more people get their pets microchipped, it is possible to scan dogs and contact their owners to pick them up. (However, the report does note that early competition between different microchip standards was a problem).

America's changing relationship with the pet dog shows an increase in dogs adopted and returned to their owner, as shown in this chart
Reproduced from Rowan and Kartal (2018) under Creative Commons licence

Pets as Family

The review also comments on people’s changing relationship with their pets, which means dogs are now increasingly thought of as family, and the amount of money spent on pets has gone up substantially.

Over the past ten years, they say, people have become more likely to get a pet “purposefully” (62%) rather than “serendipitously” (26%). Ten years ago, those numbers were 46% and 37% respectively.

America's changing relationship with the pet dog shows an increase over time in dogs adopted from rescues and shelters, as shown in the graph
Data shows an increase in the percentage of people saying they adopted their dog from a shelter or rescue. Reproduced from Rowan and Kartal (2018) under Creative Commons licence.

Surveys put the proportion of dogs that sleep on their owner’s bed at between about 50% and 71%.

Finally, 95% of people say their pets are family members, according to a 2015 survey.

Rowan and Kartal write,
“Owning a dog has become a conscious choice rather than incidental and with this shift we see a changing relationship. One of the first indicators is the level of confinement of companion dogs (from free roaming to confined and clearly associated with a household). This happened around the same time that sterilization became part of the basic care. Following this change, dogs moved into homes and became identified as more formal members of the family.”

The research uses data from a variety of sources, including the American Pet Products Association, American Veterinary Medical Association, individual shelters, and software packages that some shelters use to track animals. While the data varies in time frame, quality, and reach, they have pulled it together to draw a national picture, as well as to consider some states in particular.

The review suggests these lessons can provide a model for other countries, but it is important to remember that cultural factors will need to be taken into account.

Even one dog or cat euthanized due to lack of a home is one too many, and so there is still a long way to go. But this review shows what has been achieved in the US in the last few decades. Let’s hope life continues to improve for our pet dogs and cats.

What do you think are the biggest welfare issues for dogs today?

The paper is open access (link below).

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.

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Rowan, A., & Kartal, T. (2018). Dog population & dog sheltering trends in the United States of America. Animals, 8(5), 68.

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  1. Moving from an interesting (free roaming) if dangerous life with lots of opportunities to practice normal dog behaviour (you know, the things we don’t like like running around with other dogs, chasing stuff and reproducing!) into a house deprived many dogs (unless they have an educated purposeful owner) of enrichment opportunities.
    Many dogs, while much safer physically, are worse off mentally

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Eileen. It's certainly important for people to ensure that their dogs have plenty to do and aren't bored, and can do normal doggy things, like chasing stuff!

  2. The biggest welfare issue in my opinion are irresponsible breeders. What happens to the puppies they cannot sale? They are killed by the breeder, or dropped off at a shelter, then the shelter is responsible for the health spay/neuter, and adoption arrangements if so lucky.
    Puppy mills of course are the biggest welfare concern, but given a loop hole by way of a livestock permit.
    Out dated abuse, and neglect laws are another welfare issue. Healthcare is very expensive, and another welfare concern.
    We have many welfare issues when it comes to the marketing of animals. When their is money to be made fromthe blood, and suffering of animals.. their will be people to take advantage it.

    1. Hi Teresa, Thanks for sharing your comment. Puppy mills are a huge problem and one that's hard to deal with simply through education on its own, as adverts can make it hard to tell whether or not someone is really a mill. Still, education helps. There is definitely a lot of work to do here!

  3. So many rural communities, like the one I grew up in, are still struggling with changing attitudes from decades ago that still believe dogs and cats are just commodities without souls, or worse yet, a money-maker for dog fighters. That's why they are still sold today in flea markets. And, why some people don't see anything wrong with letting a dog live forever chained up. I believe the change will have to begin with elementary school children. I'm still waiting on someone to create educational handouts on this topic. Shelter people are already overloaded, but one thing they should make time to do is to speak at local schools.

    1. I agree that humane education for children would make a real difference. I'm pleased to say that my local SPCA does have volunteers who go into schools to talk to children about how to care for pets, and summer camps for kids too. Of course not everywhere has the resources to do this, and if it were part of the curriculum that would be even better.

  4. Hi! A behaviourist speaking from New Delhi, India - We have a huge population of free roaming dogs in cities. Neutering programs are population, but most of these programs end up catching only the friendly ones. Speaking to other more senior behaviourists in the country, many remark on the changing temperament of the Indian urban free ranging dog, from being confident and friendly (before the 90s) to being shy/nervous today.

    A lot of the Indian street dogs are not fit to be pet dogs :( And definitely not to first time dog owners. I see too many such dogs adopted, often with disastrous consequences, including aggression.

    I would love to know what you think, and if you have any insight or experience with this.


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