Each year, millions of homeless pets can be found across the United States.
You probably see them in your own town. It’s the stray cat under that parked car. The dog in the woods that keeps running away. And the millions of animals making their way through animal control and the shelter or rescue network, hoping for homes.
Here at Mars Petcare, we believe so strongly that life is better with pets. They give us companionship, keep us active for good health and help us meet new people. Pet owners report lower stress, more exercise and less depression.
With so many homeless pets and so many reasons to welcome a pet into your life, ending pet homelessness shouldn’t be so hard. But there are lots of barriers and sometimes, the challenges for pet owners can seem insurmountable.
To shine a light on this issue, we reached out to our friends in the animal welfare community for insights. Here’s an interview with three experts on the topic of helping homeless pets:
- Laura Chavarria, Executive Director of Nashville Humane Association (NHA)
- Lauren Bluestone, Director of Nashville Metro Animal Care and Control (MACC)
- Nikki Kelley, Manager of Network Strategy at Best Friends Animal Society
What causes homeless pets? Why do people give up or abandon their dogs and cats?
Laura: There are a lot of reasons, but the number one is people moving. In 2017, 61% of owner surrenders to NHA were because the owners couldn’t take pets where they were going when making a housing change.
That might be because there’s no pet-friendly housing available, or because there’s a limit to the number of pets a resident can have. Sometimes the new location has breed or weight restrictions. Other times it’s because pets are allowed, but the pet deposit or monthly pet fee is simply too much for the owner to pay. But it ultimately boils down to a lack of pet-friendly housing.
Lauren: We absolutely see that at MACC, too. We’ve been gathering data to get a more detailed understanding of what makes people surrender pets. From April through July, more than 40% of the owners who surrendered a pet at MACC said it was because they were moving, had a problem with a landlord or had too many pets at home.
And the real challenge is that unlike other issues, like community cats, where there’s a roadmap of how to tackle it, no one has really solved pet-friendly housing yet. There aren’t a lot of best practice solutions out there.
That’s why we’re in an info-gathering phase. We need to understand what, specifically, the issues are. Is it cost? Pet size? Breed bans? Once we really know, we can start working with the influencers in these areas – like housing developers and insurance providers – to advocate for policy changes that help people, pets and landlords.
What else causes homeless pets? Why is it hard for pet owners to keep their dogs and cats?
Laura: The other big reasons are medical issues, behavior challenges, financial issues, and life changes, like the death of a family member or a work change that means less time for the pet. Often there are resources out there to help, but people aren’t aware of them. For behavior issues, there can be simple training fixes, but owners don’t know how to teach their pet to behave. They need help.
Lauren: And the thing is, there are ways to deal with a lot of these challenges. At MACC, we have a list of resources we’re glad to share with pet owners.
As an example, let’s say someone’s dog is an escape artist. The owner tries, but the dog keeps getting away and they’re worried for the safety of the dog and for kids in the area. First, we can refer them to Pet Community Center for spay and neuter. That can have a real impact. But also, we can connect them with Habitat for Paws, a nonprofit that works to improve the living conditions of dogs for good health and behavior.
Habitat for Paws goes out into the community and educates about tethering. They’ll even provide fencing in some cases. And that support can sometimes make the difference that convinces a pet owner to keep a pet.
It sounds like it takes a village to help homeless pets…
Nikki: That’s right. In fact, ending pet homelessness can’t happen without collaboration. It’s why Nashville stands out as a city that’s better for pets. A few years ago, the community realized that to save all the healthy and treatable animals in Davidson County, it was going to take more than individual shelters and rescues. It would take a coalition.
The city asked Best Friends to help get it started, because that’s part of our expertise around the country. Plus, we have a national staff to tap into for support like legal information, health information, marketing, etc.
So together with MACC, NHA, Pet Community Center and Crossroads Campus, we formed the Safe Coalition. Our mission is to build and sustain a community that saves all healthy and treatable pets in metro Nashville and Davidson County. The vision is that by the end of 2018, we’re saving 90% or more of the dogs and cats in the metro area.
Lauren: For Nashville, having a coalition has been key. We have amazing shelters and rescues throughout the area. But without the coalition to connect us all, animals can fall through the cracks. When we can look at issues holistically and develop solutions as a team, we can do more and not duplicate efforts.
One thing the Safe Coalition introduced is a Safe Placement Incentive – grants to encourage and support partners who can take animals that might not be able to stay where they are. For example, during kitten season, we might have so many litters that we just can’t house them all. In these cases, organizations like Nashville Cat Rescue and Proverbs 12:10 might be able to step in.
When we have a big or older dog we can’t place because of housing restrictions, Bonapart’s Retreat, Nashville PITTIE or Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary may have a network that can help.
Nikki: A lot of the partners are foster-based rescues, and that’s really important because often animals do better in a home foster environment than in a shelter. Adult cats, for example, can get stressed out and sick if they’re in a shelter too long. And there are space issues with housing large dogs for too long. So connecting everyone together – MACC, shelters, rescues and their networks of fosters – we can collectively do so much more.
What else is the Safe Coalition exploring?
Laura: We’re really excited about the new Home for Good Fund grants that Mars Petcare is funding. Basically, this gives coalition members a new way to offer direct pet owner support where needed.
It could be giving resources like food and safe tethers. It could be health care support like low-cost spay/neuter or flea, tick and heartworm protection. Or, it could be training programs to address some of the behavioral issues that lead to pet homelessness.
Lauren: For a family that’s at the end of their rope, sometimes even a small amount of support can make all the difference they need. Whether it’s that they can’t afford pet care costs or they don’t know how to handle a behavior issue, the solution can be a small investment, but it’s beyond their means.
That’s the point of these grants. Knowing that you can get free pet food while you get back on your feet after losing a job, or that you can get your pet neutered without having to choose between that and food for your kids…it’s a game changer.
What are the key learnings for other communities that want to collaborate to help homeless pets?
Lauren: Team up. Our goal is to save 90% or more of the dogs and cats in our community that are healthy and treatable. We’re already only 2% away from that. We were around 70% just a few years ago. Working together makes all the difference.
Nikki: It takes some time to get started and get all the right people in the room, but don’t give up. The benefits of collaboration are incredible, and there are resources to help. This page on the Best Friends website gives you what you need to get started in planning a coalition and getting it rolling. We’d be happy to help.
Laura: Find a way to offer a safety net. If someone can’t keep their pet, often when you get to the heart of it, you may have the network to provide the help needed. Food that’s been donated. A spare crate or harness. A partner that does low-cost medical services or free training sessions.
We’re lucky that in the Nashville area we’ll have the Home for Good Fund grants. But every community needs some sort of safety net. Often keeping a pet in a home comes down to just a couple hundred dollars’ worth of support in the owner’s moment of greatest need.
And what about communities and pet owners in general? What would you say to them about ending pet homelessness?
Laura: Adopt a pet. If you can’t adopt, then foster, volunteer or donate to a local shelter. Fostering is particularly important and it’s something a lot of people don’t think about. But it’s incredibly helpful in socializing pets and helping them be adoptable. Take a tour of your local shelter and see how you can help. If everyone did that in their community, shelters would have all the resources they need
Lauren: Ditto. Join us and be part of the solution. MACC has just 36 people. It’s just not enough to resolve the issues of an entire county of pets. We have a lot of groups stepping up and being part of the animal welfare community. It’s really exciting, and we’re looking for more. If you’re an individual, come see us and think about volunteering. If you’re part of a rescue or other welfare group, apply to join the Safe Coalition.
Please help spread the word!
This video summarizes the issues discussed above. We hope you’ll share it, because the more communities talk about the barriers to pet ownership, the more we can start tackling the issue of homeless pets together.
For more resources, check out the Playbook for Pet Friendly Cities (PDF) and our list of free online resources. And, please sign up for our mailing list to get more info about ways to make cities better for people and pets.