A new survey has found that barriers to pet ownership include not only expenses and lifestyle factors but also a dislike of cats and grief over the loss of a previous pet.
The American Humane Association’s Animal Welfare Research Institute released the results in August not long after the AVMA released data revealing a decrease between 2006 and 2011 in the percentage of households that own pets.
The February survey by the American Humane Association examined reasons for not owning a dog or cat. The survey is the first phase of a three-part study on how to keep dogs and cats in homes, thereby reducing euthanasia at shelters.
“The American Humane Association is totally committed to the human-animal bond and trying to address the issue of pet retention or relinquishment and do our best to help secure and promote the entire family,” said Dr. Patricia Olson, chief veterinary adviser for the organization.
The respondents to the survey were 500 people who had never owned a dog or cat as an adult, 500 people who previously had owned a cat but not within the past 12 months, and 500 people who previously had owned a dog but not within the past 12 months.
Among previous pet owners, the most common reason for giving a pet away was that landlords did not allow the pet.
“They won’t let the dog or cat in, then that disrupts the family,” Dr. Olson said.
The top reasons that previous dog owners gave for not currently owning a dog were veterinary expenses, general expenses, and a lack of time. The top reasons that previous cat owners gave for not currently owning a cat were travel, cleanup, and veterinary expenses.
Twenty percent of previous dog owners and 17 percent of previous cat owners reported that they were still grieving the loss of the previous pet.
“It’s maybe hard in many cases to be expecting someone to engage in pet ownership if we haven’t first identified the grieving process that can be very prolonged and celebrate that prior pet’s life,” Dr. Olson said.
People who had never owned a dog or cat as an adult cited lifestyle as one of the top reasons for not owning a dog or cat. Nonowners said other top reasons for not owning a dog were cleanup and general expenses. More than a third of nonowners said they do not like cats, and nearly a third said they do not like the smell of a litter box.
People who say they do not like cats might simply be unfamiliar with cats, said Dr. Jane Brunt, executive director of the CATalyst Council. She said CATalyst sees a serious need for a call to action for cats.
“We really want to show all of the positive things that you get from cat ownership,” Dr. Brunt said.
Representatives of CATalyst and the American Humane Association spoke in September about ways to work together to address some of the survey findings regarding ownership of cats.
“If travel is a barrier, how do we get around that?” Dr. Brunt asked. ”If cleaning up after them is a barrier, what are some specific tools that we can provide owners with to make it not a barrier?”
The survey identified demographic differences among prospective owners of cats and dogs. Most respondents age 65 and older were unreceptive to future pet ownership.
“Older people were saying, ‘We’re done, we don’t want to bring in another animal,’” Dr. Olson said. “That’s kind of sad, in my opinion, because we know animals can provide tremendous companionship for the elderly.”
The survey found that only 22 percent of previous dog owners and 18 percent of previous cat owners acquired the previous pet from a shelter or rescue organization. A much higher proportion of prospective pet owners said they would acquire a future pet from a shelter or rescue organization.
“That’s a huge finding for the veterinary profession,” Dr. Olson said. She said private practitioners have an opportunity to ask, “How do I become proactively engaged to support that activity and get the new owner off on a good foot?”
The second phase of the American Humane Association’s study will examine outcomes for dogs and cats in the six months following adoption from shelters. The third phase will test strategies for improving retention rates of pets following acquisition.
PetSmart Charities funded the first and second phases of the study.