Reuniting Lost Pets With Their Families Represents a Huge Opportunity to Save Lives and Reduce Costs
Owners reclaiming their pets saves lives. Pets returned to owners do not get killed at shelters. Additionally, returning dogs to their owners boosts save rates since dogs who might fail shelter behavioral tests could safely live with the family these dogs already trust. Similarly, cats who might be killed for being incorrectly classified as feral could leave the shelter alive with their family. Thus, returning stray pets to their owners increases life saving.
Owners reclaiming their pets, particularly dogs, saves shelters significant costs. 80% of reclaimed stray dogs at Kansas City’s open admission no kill shelter occur within 5 days of arriving at the shelter. Similarly, 80% of lost dogs in California shelters reunite with their families within 4 days of entering the shelter. While animals getting adopted/transferred to rescue or killed may impact these quick turnaround times (i.e. the dog or cat may not get reclaimed by owner after a long time since they are out of the shelter), most shelters cannot hold animals for extended periods of time. As a result, shelters can most quickly get stray animals, which must be held 7 days in New Jersey for owner reclaim, out of shelters alive by finding the pets owners. Finding stray pets owners therefore saves significant costs associated with housing, adopting, or killing dogs or cats.
Many shelters return few lost pets to their owners. Currently, many of New Jersey’s large urban shelters only return approximately 20%-30% of stray dogs and around 2% of stray cats to owners. Nationally, owner reclaim rates are also similar. While some cats may be feral and have no owner, the percentage of stray owned cats returned to owners likely is still very low. Given about 2/3 and 80% of our dogs and cats are strays, respectively, at some of New Jersey’s large urban shelters, boosting owner reclaim rates will significantly increase life saving and reduce shelter costs.
Licensing is a Seductive Mirage
Licensing is often seen as the go to solution for owners to find their lost pets. Certainly, animal shelters will return licensed dogs wearing their tags to their owners. In fact, shelters have to do little work when a dog is licensed. Not surprisingly, shelters have strongly advocated pet licensing for a long time.
While I’m not aware of precise dog licensing rates for New Jersey municipalities, logic suggests dog licensing and microchipping rates should be higher in wealthier areas. For example, St. Huberts – Madison served the well to do towns of Bernardsville, Chatham Boro, and East Hanover in 2012 and returned virtually all stray dogs and nearly 80% of stray cats to their owners (all three towns require cat licenses). Similarly, Tyco Animal Control, which serves 22 wealthy North Jersey towns returned 88% of all stray dogs (Tyco Animal Control typically does not accept regular owner surrenders) to their owners in 2012. Despite killing more dogs than they adopted out, Tyco Animal Control still saved 96% of its impounded dogs in 2012 by virtue of its high return to owner rate. Thus, licensing and microchipping are wildly successful in saving lives and reducing shelter costs in wealthy areas.
Calgary’s successful licensing model has long been advocated to increase return to owner and live release rates. Licensing is a key component of Calgary’s “Responsible Pet Ownership” initiative which challenges the community to license their pets, spay/neuter, and be good pet owners in general. Calgary’s licensing program uses various incentives, such as discounts at retail stores, and no fee promotions for first time pet licenses. Calgary also imposes a steep $250 fine on owners of unlicensed pets. Like the wealthy communities in North Jersey above, Calgary has high licensing compliance rates and returned 84% and 47% of stray dogs and cats to their owners in 2012. As a result of these high reclaim rates, Calgary saved 95% and 80% of stray dogs and cats during this period. Unfortunately, we do not know Calgary’s total save rate since owner surrenders go to Calgary Humane Society, which kills for space, and does not report its live release rate. Additionally, licensing revenues fully fund animal control and sheltering for Calgary’s stray pets. As a result of Calgary Animal Services’ success, other cities are looking to emulate the Calgary model.
Calgary significant differs socioeconomically from poor areas of the United States with high kill rates. Calgary has had the highest per capita income of major Canadian cities going back to at least 1980. Additionally, the economy grew and diversified significantly since the 1980s. Calgary’s population also is among the most educated of all Canadian cities and over 2/3 of people over 25 have attended college. Additionally, 73% of Calgary household owned homes compared to only 23 percent in Newark, New Jersey. Calgary had a very high dog reclaim rate of around 45% in 1985 before the city aggressively pursued dog licensing efforts. In fact, the pace of dog reclaim rate increases was virtually indistinguishable from the mid-late 1980s (before aggressive dog licensing efforts began) to periods after. Also, dog reclaim rates just about reached today’s levels by the mid 1990s. The city’s cat reclaim rates remained flat from before cat licensing began in 2006 until now. Ironically, Bill Bruce, the man largely credited with the success of Calgary, joined the Calgary’s Animal Services in 2000 after the high dog and cat reclaim rates were achieved. Thus, high licensing rates in Calgary like the wealthy communities served by St. Huberts and Tyco Animal Control are more reflective of socioeconomic status than policy choices.
The Calgary licensing model should not be followed by large United States cities with high poverty rates. Poor people have an extremely difficult time caring for their pets and insisting they pay licensing fees will not help them nor will they likely comply. Simply put, asking poor pet owners in low income cities to solely fund animal control and sheltering is unfair and not likely to succeed. If poor pet owners must solely fund animal control and sheltering, governments should use a pet food/supplies tax to allow these pet owners to pay in small bits throughout the year instead of all in one shot. Also, some minority groups poor experiences with animal control in the past may lead to low licensing compliance rates as well. Additionally, like most animal control mandates strict enforcement of licensing may lead to more impounds and shelter killing. Finally, large resources devoted to an unlikely to succeed licensing endeavor may divert resources from other life saving initiatives.
Providing Outreach and Support in Poor Communities Will Increase Reclaim Rates
Communities can achieve the benefits of licensing by conducting strong outreach efforts. Licensing’s two primary benefits, other than raising funds, are identifying lost dogs and ensuring pets are vaccinated for rabies. Recently, geographic information systems have been used to target areas generating large numbers of shelter impounds. Additionally, groups such as Beyond Breed in Brooklyn, Spay/Neuter Kansas City, and Downtown Dog Rescue in Los Angeles go into these underserved communities and provide much needed support. If we were to step up such efforts and offer free microchips, identity tags, and rabies vaccines, we would achieve what licensing efforts seek. Literally, driving around these communities in a service van and going door to door could go a long way to getting identification on the community’s animals and increasing rabies vaccination rates. I’d suggest even offering free goodies, such as ice cream, to draw people in to start important conversations. Animal welfare groups could engage Petco Foundation and Petsmart Charities and request identity tags since their retail stores offer these tags at relatively affordable prices. Given people in these underserved communities rarely shop at Petco and Petsmart, the stores would not lose any significant revenues from such an endeavor. Thus, building a relationship within the community can start getting lost pets home.
Local governments and animal shelters must break down barriers to reuniting owners and lost pets. Unfortunately, many shelters presume stray animals are mostly “dumped on the streets” by their owners and do not make any real effort to get these animals home. However, Kathy Pobloski, Director of Lost Dogs Wisconsin and writer of Wisconsin Watchdog blog, provides the following reasons why owners fail to reclaim lost pets:
- The owner didn’t know the animal was at the shelter
- The owner can’t afford to reclaim the pet
- The owner has no transportation
- The owner has outstanding warrants or is illegal so doesn’t want to go to a government agency
- The owner has a language barrier
- The owner does not have internet access or the ability to effectively search for their dog
Most of these barriers can be torn down with effective outreach. For example, the same community programs used to tag and microchip dogs can also educate pet owners to immediately go to the local shelter. Similarly, community outreach can inform pet owners that they can reclaim their pets and not be reported for potentially being an illegal or undocumented resident. Also, shelters can have volunteers distribute fliers widely in areas with high numbers of strays to inform people their lost pets may be at the shelter. Additionally, shelters should have people who speak foreign languages, allow volunteers to transport lost pets back to their owners, and be flexible on redemption fees if the owner cannot afford them. In fact, redemption fees can total hundreds and even thousands of dollars in some cases. Over the long term, shelters as well as animal advocates should lobby local governments to drop redemption fees altogether. Shelters are funded by taxes and people should not pay a ransom fee to return a family member. When a child is lost, we don’t make the parents pay a redemption fee. We shouldn’t do so either with people’s furry kids either. Finally, shelters can make pleas for animal advocates to form lost pet search groups, such as Lost Dogs Wisconsin and Lost Dogs Illinois, which have remarkable track records in reuniting pets to their families.
Animal control officers should make every effort to redeem pets they find in the field. Nevada Humane Society, which has a return to owner rate of nearly 60%, has its animal control officers check for tags and microchips in the field, examines lost pet reports, and asks people in the area if they know the stray animal’s owner. By finding the owner in the field, the animal never even goes to the shelter reducing sheltering costs and stress to the animal.
The Wisconsin Watchdog blog posted a “how to” guide for shelters to increase their return to owner rates. Tips include immediately posting stray dog photos to shelter web sites and Facebook pages (Lost and Found Pets New Jersey is another great place for shelters in this state). Additionally, Wisconsin Watchdog recommends having specific volunteers check lost pet reports and help owners coming to shelters to find their lost pets. Also, they recommend giving guidance to owners on how to find their lost pet who is not at the shelter. Shelters should read and implement all the recommendations.
Nationally, animal welfare groups should use a single web site for posting and searching for stray pets coming into their facilities. These groups should heavily promote this web site so the general public posts their animals there to facilitate owners finding their lost dogs at shelters. In fact, one such web site already exists. Thus, national animal welfare groups and local shelters should strongly advocate the use of a specific web site by the public and shelters.
Strategically, these specific actions by shelters will boost reclaim rates in the short term. Over the long-term, greater numbers of pets with identity tags and microchips through community outreach efforts should increase reclaim rates to the very high levels seen in wealthy places. At the end of the day you have to work for positive changes and this means engaging and supporting your community. Unfortunately, their are no free lunches unless your shelter serves a wealthy community.