Proven Strategies

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Latest Data Analysis Reveals Most Common Reasons for Owner Surrender

The recently released Pet Owner Surrender data analysis completed by the business intelligence department here at Best Friends had its roots in conversations from the 2018 conference in Dallas when manager of data analytics Jon Davis noticed that a lot of attendees were talking about the reasons why people surrendered pets to shelters. The theories being tossed around were anecdotal and speculative, however. Clearly there was a need to analyze shelter data and find out for sure what was driving people to relinquish pets to shelters so that our industry could come up with ways to stem that tide.  

Jon’s initial analysis was based on some limited shelter data that we received from ShelterLuv, but it was enough to disprove previous studies showing animal behavior or health reasons as being more prominent triggers for owner relinquishment than human reasons. In fact, the ShelterLuv data analysis showed that human reasons were twice as likely to drive relinquishment compared to issues related to the pets themselves.  

Fast-forward to today and the release of an extensive analysis based on 1.1 million classifiable U.S. cat and dog owner surrenders from 24PetWatch data spanning January 2018 through September 2020. Beyond the relinquishment rationale, the analysis also includes the source of acquisition reported for those pets being surrendered and compares owner surrender data from the 2009 recession, the time period prior to COVID and during the pandemic. And the results include some surprising findings that have the potential to refine the focus of animal shelters.  

Human reasons outweigh animal reasons for surrender by 3:1 

“Non-aggressive behavior issues” popped up in the top five reasons for owner surrender of both dogs and cats (cited in 7.8% of the data), but as a whole “too many animals” (16.1%) and “housing” (13.7%) were most frequently cited as the reasons why people relinquish their pets. Granted, with data from a variety of shelters, there were numerous definitions of each of these categories based on the individual practices of each facility. For instance, the broad category of housing includes rental limitations, insurance restrictions and displacement or homelessness. 

These statistics underscore the need for our industry to focus efforts on educating insurance companies, housing associations and rental property managers about why it’s smart to open more housing options to pet owners. A national study by FIREPAW, Inc. about the availability of dog-friendly rental properties noted several benefits to property owners, including increased length of tenancy (46 months on average as compared to 18 months for non-pet owners), and lower vacancy rates, which led to decreased costs for lost rent and marketing/advertising.  

Of special interest was the fact that financial reasons were cited less often during COVID as compared to the 2009 recession (7.6% compared to 10.8%) and only slightly more often during the pandemic as compared to prior years (financial reasons made up 7% of those prior to the pandemic and 7.6% during). Housing was cited in 14.4% of the data as the reason for surrender prior to COVID and 14.7% during the recession, but 11.3% during the pandemic.  

It’s unknown how much eviction moratoriums impacted the COVID housing data, however as an industry, we’ve been saying we should look back at the recession to see what might occur due to COVID. In fact, the data doesn’t support the concern that the sky is going to fall due to the pandemic.  

Acquisition sources for pets influences shelter relinquishment  

The data analysis also looked at a variety of acquisition methods—cats or dogs who were rehomed within a community, adopted from a shelter or rescue, the result of a litter, purchased from a breeder, or picked up as a stray or abandoned pet—to evaluate whether where pets came from influenced the decision to relinquish them to a shelter. The comparison in this case was 24PetWatch data versus information from the 2019-2020 American Pet Product Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey.  

We found that pets acquired from the community are relinquished to shelters significantly more frequently than pets who are adopted or purchased. For dogs, 32% of those acquired without potential resources and support from a shelter, rescue or breeder make up 61.8% of all dog surrenders; for cats, 47% of those from the community make up a whopping 79.4% of those relinquished to shelters.  

It may be the case that people who acquire pets “without support” are either not exposed to services other than owner surrender or are not aware of such services due to poor marketing. Either way, the data implies that getting a cat or dog from an organization gives people a better chance of fixing the kinds of issues that might otherwise drive them to give up their pet.  

So, if pets that never came from an organization are being disproportionally surrendered, how can we as an industry provide better support for them? It’s imperative that we support ways to keep pets from coming into the shelter in the first place. Taking care of people is an integral part of animal welfare; just focusing on the animal-specific issues is not going to have a significant dent in reducing the number of pets being surrendered. 

It has been said that best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Now that we have concrete data to look back upon, it can hopefully guide us to a future where pets will have a safety net no matter where they come from, and that surrendering a pet to a shelter will be a very last resort indeed. 

Vicki Kilmer 
Director, business intelligence and strategy 
Best Friends Animal Society

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