It is not known how many cats and dogs are admitted to welfare organisations annually. This study produced the first estimates of the size of this population. A questionnaire was mailed out to welfare organisations during 2010, followed by a postal/email reminder and requests to non-responders for a telephone interview. The questionnaire covered areas including, the current number of cats and dogs being housed, how much of the year organisations were operating at full capacity as well as the number of cats and dogs admitted, rehomed and euthanased between January and December 2009. Responses were obtained from 54.8 per cent of organisations. Sixty-six per cent of cat welfare organisations and 48 per cent of dog welfare organisations reported that they operated at full capacity for 12 months of the year. The number of cats and dogs entering UK welfare organisations during 2009 was estimated as 131,070 and 129,743, respectively. This highlights the scale of the work performed by welfare organisations in caring for and rehoming unwanted cats and dogs annually and emphasises the urgent need to address concerns over the considerable number of these animals. This study has also produced useful baseline data, which will be essential for monitoring population changes over time.
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ABOUT 10.3 million cats and 10.5 million dogs are owned by UK households (Murray and others 2010). However, to the authors knowledge, there has been no attempt to quantify the number of unowned cats or dogs in the UK, despite substantial efforts made to reduce the size of these populations in order to minimise negative social impacts on people and the welfare issues for these animals (Murray and others 2008, Casey and others 2009). The unowned population consists of ‘free-living’ cats and dogs (also referred to as stray or feral), and cats and dogs in the care of animal welfare organisations. Estimating the size of these populations is particularly challenging; however, it is more straightforward to obtain estimates of the population housed and homed by welfare organisations. Large national animal welfare organisations, such as the RSPCA, Cats Protection, Dogs Trust and The Blue Cross, publish their rehoming statistics, but as a substantial proportion of the UK animal welfare sector is made up of smaller, independent, welfare organisations which do not publish corresponding data, overall UK estimates are not readily available. While estimating the numbers of animals cared for by welfare organisations may provide little indication of the total unowned population size, it can be used to indicate the extent of the problem and can be used as a benchmark for future comparisons to monitor trends.
Quantifying the unowned population will be useful as a baseline to assess any changes or trends in the future that may, for example, result from economic factors. Animals enter the care of animal welfare organisations for a variety of reasons, including both unowned strays or ferals, and those relinquished by owners as a result of changes in personal circumstances or unwanted behaviour such as inappropriate elimination, for example (Patronek and others 1996a, b). Several welfare organisations have recently raised concerns over a perceived increase in the number of animals both being abandoned (therefore adding to the stray population) and being relinquished to welfare organisations, as a consequence of the global and UK recessions (ASPCA 2009a, b, The Blue Cross 2011). Social deprivation has been linked to increased relinquishment of pets (Rinzin and others 2008) and there are indications that financial constraints have had an impact on UK pet owners, with an increase in insurance policy cancellations (Petplan 2009, YouGov 2010), a reduction in owners keeping up to date with their pet's vaccinations (YouGov 2011) and changes to feeding habits (The Blue Cross 2011).
It is therefore important that accurate estimates of the numbers of cats and dogs entering welfare organisations are obtained, so that efforts by welfare organisations and charities to reduce the size of these populations and improve their welfare can be assessed, particularly in relation to external factors such as the global and UK recessions. Producing and publicising accurate estimates will help to increase public awareness of the scale of the problem, hopefully stimulating discussion and increasing investment into ways to improve the situation (eg, increase neutering and adoptions from welfare organisations, encourage more responsible ownership). The aims of this study were to create a database of UK cat and dog welfare organisations and use this database to obtain an estimate of the number of cats and dogs that were admitted during 2009, the first full year following the onset of the UK recession (Chamberlin 2010).
Materials and methods
A database containing 1555 UK cat and/or dog welfare organisations was compiled from various online resources (eg, catchat.org, Yell.com, The Charities Commission) and the Kennel Club Dog Rescue Directory. A summary of the categories of organisations included on the database is provided in Table 1. The organisations were grouped into three broad categories: national UK charities (Blue Cross, Cats Protection, Dogs Trust, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) and the Ulster Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA)); independent organisations (with or without charitable status); and breed-specific organisations. Council dog pounds were included within the independent organisation sector if they also rehomed animals. However, care was taken not to count animals twice, as some authorities house strays within other welfare organisations, or pass dogs directly to welfare organisations after the seven-day reclaim period and do not get involved in the rehoming process.
A self-completed paper questionnaire was designed and piloted during October 2010, before being finalised before printing and distribution. The questionnaire consisted of three sides of A4 paper, with 10 questions (a copy of the paper questionnaire is available on request from the lead author and an electronic version can be accessed at www.survey.bris.ac.uk/smvsfa/rescue.). The questionnaire covered the numbers of cats and dogs currently being cared for, including permanent residents (for whom homes were not being actively sought), whether organisations were operating at full capacity and for how much of the year they were full. Data were also collected for the period January to December 2009, regarding the total number of cats and dogs: admitted into care, rehomed from care, or direct-homed (straight from the original to the new home); died or euthanased; strays reunited with their owners; or those that left the organisation for any other reason (eg, transferred elsewhere). Respondents were instructed to count each animal only once, even if the animal entered their organisation more than once, for example, due to a failed homing or as a transfer from another branch. Where postal addresses were available, a paper version of the questionnaire, with a covering letter and a FREEPOST return envelope, was mailed out between November 2010 and January 2011. Postal reminders were sent between January and mid-February 2011. If a postal address could not be obtained, organisations were contacted by email with the letter and questionnaire attached (PDF format, Adobe Systems). The questionnaire could be completed and returned by email, by post or online. Individual branches of the RSPCA, USPCA, SSPCA, Cats Protection, Dogs Trust and Blue Cross were contacted; however, for some of these organisations, we received information from their head office for all branches (see Results). In order to boost the response rate, attempts were made to contact non-responders by telephone between mid-February and June 2011 (Monday to Friday, 09:00 to 19:00 hours). Representatives from the majority of non-responding organisations were contacted by telephone (or email); however, 16 per cent (218/1364) of organisations either could not be contacted or declined to take part.
The response rate was calculated for the different types of welfare organisation and chi-squared tests were used to test for an association between response rate and organisation type. Significance was set at P<0.05.
Descriptive statistics (mean, sd and median) were produced for the number of cats and dogs entering the three different types of welfare organisation (national, independent and breed-specific) during 2009, based on data supplied by organisations reporting that one or more animals of the species (cat/dog) had been either admitted to the care of their organisation during 2009, or rehomed ‘directly’. This latter group were included so that the organisations which just rehomed animals ‘directly’ (ie, from the original to the new owner without entering the care of the welfare organisation) would contribute a ‘zero’ to the calculations and hence not incorrectly inflate the estimates by their removal. As the data were not normally distributed, Kruskal-Wallis tests were used to test for associations between the number of cats/dogs entering the care of a welfare organisation and the type (national, independent, breed-specific). As multiple testing can increase the risk of finding a significant result by chance (Type I error), the Bonferonni correction was used and the significance level was subsequently adjusted to P<0.008.
Respondents were asked to provide data relating to the numbers of cats/dogs that had entered their care for different reasons (eg, stray/feral, behavioural problem) and the numbers that had been euthanased for different reasons (eg, veterinary advice, behavioural problem). Missing data, resulting from non-standardised record-keeping among animal welfare organisations and the retrospective nature of the data collection, meant that responses for reasons for relinquishment were of limited value and hence are not presented here, and the authors were not able to consider stray/feral animals separately from those relinquished due to difficulties in classification. Data relating to the maximum capacity that organisations had to care for cats/dogs at any one time are also not presented as it became apparent during the telephone questionnaire phase of data collection that many organisations would not turn away an animal whose future welfare was perceived to be severely compromised if it should be turned away or placed on a waiting list (eg, an orphaned kitten). Hence, every effort was made to take these ‘high priority’ animals into care, often placing them with a foster carer. In addition, the maximum number of cats/dogs that were able to be housed at a time by an organisation was difficult to quantify as it depended on the number that could be confined per pen/kennel (eg, multiple animals from same household, or litters of puppies/kittens).
Estimating the numbers of cats/dogs entering UK welfare organisations during 2009
In order to estimate the number of cats/dogs that entered the care of non-responding organisations, the median number of cats/dogs cared for by responding organisations in each category (national, independent, breed-specific) that reported numbers of cats/dogs admitted during 2009 was multiplied by the number of non-responding organisations in the corresponding category that were known (or assumed) to be rehoming cats/dogs. For independent organisations, it was not always possible to determine whether non-responding organisations dealt with cats only, dogs only or cats and dogs. Hence, it was assumed that the proportion of organisations involved in cat and dog ‘rescue’ was the same for independent organisations that completed a questionnaire as for non-responding independent organisations. The number of non-responding organisations included ‘responding organisations’ who did not provide data for the number of cats/dogs that entered their organisation during 2009, but who were known to be involved in cat/dog welfare work during 2009.
The statistical package SPSS v18.0 was used to analyse the data.
Of the 1555 organisations originally listed, 191 were removed for the following reasons: 116 were confirmed as not involved in cat/dog rescue, closed or temporarily shut; correct contact details were unable to be found for a further 75 (a proportion of which were likely to also be closed).
Table 1 summarises the number of questionnaires completed by each category of welfare organisation. A total of 748/1364 questionnaires (54.8 per cent) were completed: 239 (17.5 per cent) and 77 (5.6 per cent) questionnaires were received in response to the initial mail-out and postal/email reminder, respectively, 432 (31.7 per cent) questionnaires were completed over the telephone or by post/email as a result of the telephone follow-up, including 2009 data provided by Cats Protection's head office for 119 of their branches (not adoption centres) that had not completed the questionnaire. Information for all Dogs Trust sites was provided by their Head Office. Chi-squared test analysis revealed that the type of organisation was significantly associated with the probability of response (P<0.001). National organisations were the most likely to respond (77.0 per cent), followed by independent organisations (53.5 per cent) and breed-specific organisations (29.9 per cent).
The number of cats and dogs that were reported as being currently in the care of welfare organisations is summarised in Table 2, together with the numbers that were taken into, and left the care of the organisations during 2009. Summary statistics (mean, sd and median) were produced for the number of cats and dogs entering the care of welfare organisations during 2009, in addition to the proportion of the sample that admitted one or more cats/dogs to their care during 2009 (Table 3), and these suggested that the data were not normally distributed. Despite national and independent welfare organisations having the same overall current capacity (Table 2), over twice as many cats passed through the national organisations (housed, homed, reunited, died/euthanased and other) (Table 2) in 2009. Independent organisations admitted more cats on average per organisation/branch than the national organisations (Table 3); however, for both, the mean number of cats admitted was greater than the median, indicating that the mean was inflated by a few organisations housing large numbers of cats each year. On the other hand, more dog welfare organisations were classified as independent organisations, although the national organisations took in more dogs. Again data were skewed indicating that a few organisations housed large numbers of dogs, inflating the mean value. As results were based on the numbers of cats/dogs at each branch of organisations with multiple sites, the substantial total numbers of cats/dogs admitted to large national organisations such as Cats Protection and Dogs Trust were divided between their branches. Hence, there was no significant difference between the median number of cats (P=0.73) or dogs (P=0.06) admitted to national and independent centres during 2009. In contrast, there were significantly (P<0.001) more cats admitted to national and independent welfare organisations than to breed-specific organisations, and more dogs (P<0.001) admitted to independent welfare organisations than entering breed-specific organisations.
Questionnaire responses revealed that for 12 months of the year, 65.5 per cent (262/400) of organisations were working at full capacity for cats, while 47.5 per cent (152/320) of organisations were working at full capacity for dogs. Thus, the rate of admittance was likely to be dependent on the rate of rehoming.
In response to the question asking how often cats/dogs were housed together in a pen (excluding those coming from the same household or feral colony): 52.7 per cent (215/408) and 42.9 per cent (134/312) of organisations dealing with cats and dogs, respectively, reported never to house animals together; 21.7 per cent (cats) and 20.8 per cent (dogs) were housed together ‘not very often’; 11.3 per cent (cats) and 13.0 per cent (dogs) ‘some of the time’; 8.4 per cent (cats) and 14.9 per cent (dogs) ‘much of the time’; 5.8 per cent (cats) and 8.7 per cent (dogs) ‘all of the time’.
Respondents reported that 5064 cats and 7142 dogs had died or been euthanased during 2009 (Table 2); however, the reasons for euthanasia were not always given. Of the 1849 cats for whom reasons were given, 1534 (83.0 per cent) were euthanased because of illness (including 372 cats that had FIV and/or FeLV), 66 (3.6 per cent) were due to behavioural problems, 86 (4.7 per cent) were elderly, 56 (3.0 per cent) were feral and 91 (4.9 per cent) were for other reasons (eg, kittens failing to thrive, road traffic accidents). In comparison, reasons reported for the euthanasia of 2131 dogs included eight (0.4 per cent) due to over-capacity at the centre and/or the dog had been at the centre for the maximum time permitted, 1397 (65.6 per cent) were due to behavioural problems, 648 (30.4 per cent) dogs were euthanased due to illness, 66 (3.1 per cent) were classified as elderly and 16 (0.8 per cent) were for other reasons.
Estimating the number of cats and dogs that entered animal welfare organisations in the UK during 2009
The number of cats and dogs entering the care of different types of animal welfare organisations is summarised in Table 4. It was estimated that 131,070 cats and 129,743 dogs entered the care of UK welfare organisations during 2009.
This study has produced the first estimate of the number of cats and dogs entering welfare organisations annually and will provide a useful baseline to monitor trends during subsequent years, as well as illustrating the considerable number of unwanted cats and dogs being cared for by these organisations. Assuming that the database we created of 1364 welfare organisations was complete, we estimated that 131,070 cats and 129,743 dogs entered the care of welfare organisations during 2009. At the time of questionnaire completion (November 2010 to June 2011), 14,366 cats were housed at 420 welfare organisations and 11,207 dogs were housed at 368 organisations. There were some difficulties in carrying out research within this population, which are discussed.
As this was the first study of its kind with this population, there were few resources to validate the estimates. The Kennel Club provided summary information from data supplied by organisations registered with them, which did allow comparison with our estimates for dog breed-specific welfare organisations (although it should be noted that the Kennel Club figures relate to September 2009 to August 2010 and ours relate to January to December 2009). The Kennel Club reported that in one full year, the organisations registered with them rehomed 21,661 dogs (personal communication, P Hill), which is close to the predicted figure of 24,648 dogs entering breed-specific welfare organisations. It is, however, likely that the number of cats and dogs needing a place within welfare organisations each year exceeds our estimated figures. This is due, in part, to the high numbers of organisations that operate at full capacity for much, or all, of the year: hence, the number of cats/dogs entering an organisation will inevitably be linked to, and limited by, the number of cats/dogs leaving the organisation, rather than need. Additionally, welfare organisations assist in rehoming thousands of cats and dogs each year ‘directly’ from their original owner to their new owner (3714 cats and 5627 dogs in the sample), which may not be fully accounted for in rehoming statistics reported by these organisations, and we were unable to accurately estimate the number of cats and dogs on waiting lists for rehoming. What is clear is that at least 260,000 unwanted cats and dogs entered the care of welfare organisations during 2009, which is a serious welfare concern. In addition, the estimates only include those cats and dogs entering the care of welfare organisations and not those living as strays or ferals.
The reasons why these cats and dogs entered the welfare organisations were not reported here, due to missing data resulting in part from non-standardised recording systems of welfare organisations. However, commonly cited reasons by welfare organisation staff included financial difficulties faced by the owner, moving into rented accommodation, behaviour problems, abandonment and breeding for financial gain. Previous research identified daily or weekly inappropriate elimination to be a risk factor for the relinquishment of cats and dogs (Patronek and others 1996a, b). Behavioural problems have previously been identified as a risk factor for relinquishment of dogs to welfare organisations (Patronek and others 1996a, Diesel and others 2010), as well as a risk factor for failed adoptions of dogs (Diesel and others 2008) and the most commonly cited reason for euthanasia by local authority dog wardens (The Dogs Trust 2011). Furthermore, of the organisations that provided us with reasons for euthanasia, behavioural problems were the most commonly cited reason for euthanasia of dogs (65.6 per cent). The most commonly reported reason for euthanasia of cats was illness (83.0 per cent), although respondents were not always able, or willing (16 organisations who housed cats and 13 organisations who housed dogs) to provide reasons for the euthanasia of cats/dogs in their care. There may have been concerns that transparency on this issue could create a negative image with the public, particularly where healthy animals are being euthanased. In the UK, many charities operate a ‘no-kill’ policy (eg, Thornbury Animal Sanctuary) or state that they will never put a healthy animal to sleep (eg, Cats Protection; The Dogs Trust). However, some organisations have expressed concerns that no-kill policies may have to change as a result of increasing numbers of unwanted pets (Orr 2011). Thus, if the numbers euthanased, and reasons for euthanasia, continue to be under-reported then the true scale of the problem will remain an underestimate and potential risk factors may not be identified. Further research which enables risk factors for relinquishment to be identified would also be useful; however, data obtained from relinquishing owners may also be unreliable and affected by social desirability bias. The evidence from this and other studies does suggest that more work needs to be done to prevent the development of behavioural problems in dogs, such as encouraging early socialisation (Appleby and others 2002, Howell and Bennett 2011), promoting positive reward-based training (Blackwell and others 2008, Rooney and Cowan 2011) as well as improving education to manage expectations about what constitutes ‘normal’ behaviour (Jagoe and Serpell 1996) (eg, boisterousness in puppies) and what is required of responsible owners (eg, adequate exercise).
This study highlighted the diversity in the way in which cat and dog welfare organisations operate. Some are traditional ‘shelters’, which take cats/dogs into purpose-built pens/kennels and attempt to find suitable adoption homes for the animals, others operate using networks of fosterers who care for animals in pens/kennels or within their own homes, some act as sanctuaries and do not rehome the animals. It was apparent that while the number of cats housed at the time of questionnaire completion was similar for national and independent organisations, the national organisations reported taking in and rehoming nearly twice as many cats as the independent organisations during the year. This may reflect differences in practices, which are underlined by the noticeably higher proportion of permanent residents in independent organisations. This difference was not apparent for dogs; however, a noticeably higher proportion of dogs (12.5 per cent) than cats (2.7 per cent) were reunited with their owners. This may be as a result of the easier identification of dogs, perhaps due to differences in the proportions of cats and dogs that are microchipped, or alternatively due to ‘owned stray’ dogs being more likely than ‘owned stray’ cats to be reported to or taken to an animal welfare charity by the public.
Of the welfare organisations housing cats, 52.7 per cent (215/408) reported that they always housed them individually, which was slightly higher than the proportion of organisations that reported always housing dogs individually (134/312 to 42.9 per cent). This difference may reflect that dogs are generally seen as more sociable and several organisations taking part in the study reported that housing dogs together appeared to benefit the dogs by providing companionship, reducing stress and, as a consequence, aided adoptions. Unfamiliar cats are less likely to be housed together for social reasons and concerns about disease control may also be an important factor. A major challenge to rescue centres is disease control because of the nature of the work undertaken, the concentration of animals from diverse and often largely unknown backgrounds, and limitations imposed by the facilities available and operational practices; this is a particular threat for rescue centres that deal with cats which can frequently be asymptomatic carriers of infectious diseases. For example, in one study in the USA (Pedersen and others 2004), the proportion of cats excreting feline herpesvirus had increased from 4 per cent at admission to over 50 per cent within one week, and in another study over 25 per cent of cats had developed acute infectious upper respiratory tract disease (AURTD) one week after admission and 80 per cent by two weeks (Dinnage and others 2009). Other studies have shown that the shelter is by far the most important risk factor for development of AURTD (Edwards and others 2008). It is believed that infectious diseases are less of a problem in rescue shelters in the UK; for example, only 5.2 per cent of cats monitored while in rescue centres over a 12 month period had signs of upper respiratory tract disease (Edwards and others 2004). An important factor in minimising these and possibly other infectious problems is the high proportion of animals that are housed individually in the UK which will help to reduce the risk of transmission, although as demonstrated in this study 47 per cent of organisations taking in cats did house cats together, although only 14.2 per cent housed cats together much or all of the time. Further research aimed at identifying ways in which the time taken to rehome animals can be reduced will help to reduce the chance of infections developing, as well as enabling organisations to maximise efficiency and help more cats and dogs, as well as minimising stress to the animals (Tuber and others 1999, McCobb and others 2005).
This study shows that breed-specific organisations play a much larger role in ‘rescue work’ for dogs than for cats, reflecting the differences in the proportion of the two species that are pedigrees: a recent study reported that only 7.6 per cent of owned pet cats in the UK were pedigrees (Murray and Gruffydd-Jones, unpublished data), while similar methodology has shown that approximately 47 per cent of dogs are pedigrees (Murray and Gruffydd-Jones, unpublished data). Many breed-specific organisations operate ‘direct homing’, by keeping waiting lists for cats/dogs needing a new home and/or prospective owners wishing to home a particular breed. Hence, some animals are homed without the pet needing the direct care of an organisation in the interim. Thus, despite ‘direct homing’ being included in the questionnaire, the perception of many breed-specific organisations may have been that the questionnaire did not apply to them, which contributed to the non-completion rate for this category. However, as the response rate for the other categories of welfare organisation was excellent (65.5 per cent) and many breed-specific organisations tend to administer ‘direct homings’, the present study provides comprehensive information on cats and dogs that are admitted into the care of UK welfare organisations.
From the perspective of an exercise in data collection, identifying the target population was difficult due to the unregulated nature of the sector and there being no central database listing all animal welfare organisations. Data collection was also challenging, as many of the smaller organisations are run by volunteers working in their ‘spare time’; hence, additional time pressures were expected to further reduce the anticipated low response rate frequently associated with postal questionnaires (Blumberg and others 1974, Kaplowitz and others 2004). While the response rate (23 per cent) to the postal questionnaire and reminder was comparable with other postal questionnaires (Kaplowitz and others 2004, Sahlqvist and others 2011), data collection from initial non-responders by telephone questionnaire increased the overall response rate to 55 per cent. Response rates varied according to the category of organisation, with 77 per cent of ‘large national’ organisations supplying data, compared with 53 per cent of ‘independent’ organisations and 30 per cent of ‘breed-specific’ organisations. The presence of a head office at national organisations, with paid members of staff who were able to supply data on request, undoubtedly contributed to the excellent response rate of this category. Quantifying maximum capacity was not straightforward as it will be affected by the the number of litters being cared for and as most cats, unlike dogs, are seasonal breeders (Tsutsui and others 2009) this will be influenced by the time of year. For example, some organisations reported altering their capacity during kitten season by increasing the number of fosterers or temporarily refusing to take in any adult cat considered ‘not in immediate danger’. Also, due to the nature of animal welfare work and the outlook of those working within this field, there is a reluctance to turn away an animal in need and so frequently everything will be done to ‘find a space’. Many of those cats and dogs not considered a high priority get placed on waiting lists and estimating the numbers of these was not considered feasible, due to the possibility of animals being on waiting lists for more than one centre, and rarely being removed from a list by its owner should an alternative place, or home, become available. It may be possible to address these issues in subsequent studies, but as future changes may be influenced by the maximum capacity of cats/dogs that can be housed at a single time point, as well as the numbers of cats and dogs on waiting lists, and other factors such as time taken to rehome cats/dogs, any trends should be interpreted with caution.
This study highlights the considerable size of the ‘rescue’ cat and dog populations. During the telephone interviews, organisations frequently reported being unable to meet the demands of cats and dogs needing a place, although this remains anecdotal without further study and analysis that should include the numbers on waiting lists and whether regional differences exist. Studying this population is challenging for a variety of reasons that have been highlighted in this paper; however, the need to reduce the number of cats and dogs requiring ‘rescue’ care is clearly apparent. This study should help to increase awareness of the large numbers of cats and dogs estimated to be abandoned or relinquished annually; as well as providing a starting point for discussions and investment into improving and monitoring this worrying situation, particularly in the light of continuing economic challenges. Likely methods to improve the situation include increased neutering rates, decreased neutering age to reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancies, better education of owners regarding the long-term commitment that is needed before obtaining a pet cat or a dog and measures to decrease the risk of behavioural problems, particularly in dogs. The practice of cats and dogs sharing pens/kennels and its association with the risk of infectious diseases also warrants further investigation, in order that efforts can be made to help to reduce the time taken to rehome animals and hence enable organisations to admit more cats/dogs that are in need of a space.
Provenance not commissioned; externally peer reviewed
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