S.E. Smith is a journalist and winner of a 2020 National Magazine Award for columns and commentary.
This supposed development has given a lot of people on social media an excuse to do what they love most: act morally superior. It’s all too easy to insist that you would never do such a thing or to demonize people who surrender animals to the shelter under any circumstances. But this anger is misplaced and doesn’t reach the intended audience. The best way to improve animal welfare is to look more clearly at what drives people to give up their pets, and at what reform could make it easier to keep animals and their humans together.
People surrender animals to shelters for a variety of reasons. But being bored with a cat or getting sick of finding black dog hair everywhere are not among the leading causes of these separations. Rather, serious problems in pet owners’ lives are more likely to drive surrenders than bad character.
According to an analysis of 1.1 million cases in which owners surrendered cats and dogs commissioned by the Best Friends Animal Society, evictions and other housing issues were cited as driving causes in 13.7 percent of cases. Other research has identified inability to afford care (5 percent), along with “personal problems” (4 percent) such as domestic violence and relocation to nursing homes. A landmark study from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 2015 found nearly half of surrenders involved family or housing problems. Best Friends also found an increase in surrenders when animals are acquired in situations that don’t provide new owners with supports and connections to resources that will help them become responsible guardians.
Bringing up these issues often elicits a “well I didn’t mean those people.” But when the messaging those people receive about animal surrender is that it is grossly cruel abandonment and something only a heartless person who doesn’t care about animals would do, the conclusion is clear: Surrendering a pet is always wrong. This is untrue, and it obscures cases when surrendering a pet may in fact be the best choice for the animal. That includes cases where, for example, someone who can’t be at home all day with an energetic dog thinks it should live with someone who can be.
The shame around surrendering pets makes people feel like failures for something that may already be extremely traumatic, whether it involves tearing a young child away from a beloved pet or separating someone from a companion of a decade or more. Treating it with such stigma can encourage people to abandon pets, hastily rehome them or remain in dangerous situations because they don’t want to leave their animals.
We are missing an opportunity to talk about better ways to approach animal welfare as a whole. Better adopter screening overall to weed out individuals who aren’t ready to have pets (undoubtedly true of some pandemic puppy adopters) is vitally necessary. So is finding mutually beneficial compromise. Many shelters during the pandemic explicitly asked people to consider fostering animals, offering temporary care at home. That provided people with companions and cleared shelters, a win for everyone. It could and should have been more widely practiced to reduce the rate of unplanned returns.
There are better ways to handle hardship surrenders, too. Programs such as the East Bay SPCA’s Humane Advocacy program and the Companion Animal Renters Program work on finding ways to keep animals in their homes, such as covering unusual veterinary expenses, connecting guardians with pet food pantries and educating landlords on ways to welcome pets. We know financial interventions work: Best Friends found that surrenders because of financial pressures such as evictions held stable or declined during the pandemic, perhaps thanks to eviction moratoria and unemployment assistance.
Organizations such as Ahimsa House and Red Rover provide help with sheltering for pets fleeing domestic violence situations — 48 percent of domestic violence survivors with pets reported staying because of their animals, and 71 percent reported their pets were threatened, harmed or killed. Shelters across the United States are expanding these kinds of services and programming, but many are constrained by funding.
Posturing on social media is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on people callous enough to treat animals like last season’s shoes. But it could make someone who is struggling with an incredibly difficult choice feel even worse. Animal welfare has come a long way in America. Whether we focus on individuals or institutions, one-off decisions or standard practices, will determine how much more progress we can make.