Skipper, a 9-year-old dog recently available for adoption at the Fairfax County, Va., animal shelter. (Fairfax County Animal Shelter)

American animal shelters are taking in — and saving — many more dogs than previously believed, according to a new study by researchers at the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

The study found that the number of dogs euthanized in American animal shelters has dropped to fewer than 780,000 per year, and that shelters take in more than 5.5 million dogs each year.

Those figures are dramatically different from estimates by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which says 1.2 million dogs die in U.S. shelters each year and 3.9 million enter them. The Mississippi State study also suggests that euthanasia estimates by the Humane Society of the United States and the No Kill Advocacy Center, both of which estimate that about 2.5 million animals are killed in shelters each year, may be based in large part on animals other than dogs.

The research was funded by the Pet Leadership Council, which represents organizations including the American Kennel Club and the American Pet Products Association; PetSmart and other large retail stores; and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which is the legislative and lobbying voice of the pet industry.

The industry has a keen interest in generating its own data on the number of pet dogs Americans want each year and the sources available to fill that demand, rather than continuing to rely on estimates from advocacy groups whose “adopt, don’t shop” campaigns urge consumers to shun breeders and pet stores and instead get dogs from shelters and rescue groups.

Such campaigns have been especially effective at the local level. According to the Humane Society, more than 200 localities have passed “puppy mill” laws in the past two years that sometimes make it illegal for pet stores to source dogs anywhere other than shelters and rescuers. A similar state-level law is under consideration in New Jersey, and Ohio lawmakers last year overturned local pet-store bans after intense lobbying from the pet industry.


Purebred dogs line up for judges during the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York in 2016. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Breeders and pet-store owners have long argued that such legislation is misguided, saying there are not enough dogs in U.S. shelters to fill annual consumer demand. Industry representatives say the goal should instead be smart regulation of legally operating breeders.

“Our concern was that so many very different estimates have been generated by a number of entities that have often led to conflicting conclusions,” said Bob Vetere, president and chief executive of the American Pet Products Association. “It is important to have a solid understanding of the facts before making decisions impacting the supply and availability of healthy dogs.”

The Pet Leadership Council funded the study as a follow-up to a survey it previously commissioned on dog ownership rates and where people get their dogs. It determined that 44 percent of U.S. households have a dog, and a lobbying group that advises the council then used that to extrapolate — based on average dog lifespan, U.S. Census data and typical dog-purchase behavior — that Americans wanted more than 8 million dogs in 2016 and will want more than 9.2 million by 2036.

Mississippi State’s research was led by Kimberly Woodruff, an assistant clinical professor of shelter medicine, and David R. Smith, a professor in pathobiology and population medicine. Their findings were presented Tuesday at the North American Veterinary Community conference in Florida.

The study sought to nail down how many shelters exist in the United States, estimates of which vary widely. Based on a telephone survey of 413 shelters, it used capture-recapture methodology — which is used to estimate human and wildlife populations — to determine that there are nearly 7,100 shelters nationwide.

Using data collected from the surveyed shelters, the researchers then concluded that more than 5.5 million dogs enter shelters each year and that fewer than 780,000 are euthanized. The remainder are returned to their owners, transferred to other rescues or shelters or adopted, the researchers found.

Mark Cushing of the Animal Policy Group, the lobbying firm that crunched the numbers on demand for dogs, says the data show that U.S. shelters can’t meet Americans’ demand for 8 million dogs a year.

“It’s a total myth for anybody to say or think that every American who wants a dog can go to a shelter and find one,” Cushing said. “Increasingly the ones we are euthanizing are very sick or dangerous.”

Mike Bober, the president and CEO of PIJAC, which regularly lobbies on behalf of commercial-scale dog breeders and pet stores at the legislative level, said the study shows dog breeding and retail sales must remain protected under state and federal laws.

“Adoption can’t be our only option when it comes to helping Americans find their ideal, lifelong companions,” Bober said. “Responsibly bred puppies are an essential part of the equation.”


A dog adoption event hosted by Petco in Rockville, Md. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The ASPCA declined to comment on the study until it has reviewed it. But Sheila D’Arpino, director of research at Maddie’s Fund, which gives grants to improve shelter medicine and adoption rates, said its findings are in line with overall trends.

“The numbers of dogs that are dying in shelters is decreasing over time, and our internal estimates, that are based on a lot less science than within this project, are not that far off from what they are saying related to dogs,” said D’Arpino, adding that she could not comment directly on the study.

Nathan Winograd, director of the No Kill Advocacy Center in California, challenged the study’s assumption that shelters are the only source of homeless dogs. Many rescue groups, he said, take dogs directly from owners who surrender them, and many individuals arrange adoptions of unwanted or found dogs on their own through websites and even neighborhood fliers.

“I think you can take the results of this study, celebrate the decline in the killing of dogs and still come to the conclusion that you don’t need breeding,” Winograd said.

Winograd added that he thinks it is unfair to say that nearly 780,000 dogs still dying in shelters each year are vicious or too ill to save, as Cushing suggested. And any shortfall of dogs in America, he said, could be made up with homeless puppies and dogs imported from U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, and beyond.

“If we still haven’t met market demand — which would surprise me — then let’s look to our neighbors to our south before we say, ‘Let’s start producing more,’ ” he says.

Kim Kavin is a freelance journalist and the author of “The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers.”

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