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Profiling Pets and Their Relinquishers

Study aims to identify differences between those who give up on their pets and those who don't

Study aims to identify differences between those who give up on their pets and those who don't

In their continuing investigation of the reasons behind pet surrenders, researchers for the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy have conducted a study comparing the people and pets involved in relinquishment cases to those who have stayed together.

Published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (Vol. 3, No. 3), the study is called, "Characteristics of Shelter-Relinquished Animals and Their Owners Compared With Animals and Their Owners in U.S. Pet-Owning Households." Using two sets of data—one from a relinquishment survey and one from a household survey—researchers calculated odds ratios to determine whether discrepancies exist between the characteristics and behaviors of animals in the relinquishment categories and those of animals still in their homes.* The same ratio was used to find demographic differences between the people represented by each category.

The research confirmed the conclusions of previous, more geographically limited studies, and included the following findings:

  • Dogs and cats relinquished to shelters were younger and had been owned for a shorter time than those still in their homes.
  • The risk of relinquishment tended to decrease with increasing length of ownership.
  • Sterilized animals of both sexes were relinquished less often; however, the study's authors pointed out that because relinquished animals are generally younger and therefore less likely to have been sterilized, age may confound this finding. Still, when researchers stratified sex and sterilization status by age, the risk for relinquishment of intact female dogs and intact male and female cats remained.
  • Mixed-breed animals were relinquished more frequently.
  • Dogs who came from an animal shelter, friend, or pet shop—or those who had been strays—were at an increased risk of relinquishment compared to dogs who had entered households as gifts.
  • Cats who had come from a friend, pet shop, breeder, or animal shelter were at increased risk of relinquishment compared to cats who had been given as gifts.
  • Dogs obtained at little or no cost were at increased risk of relinquishment.
  • Relinquished dogs were reported to be house-soiling, destructive, and fearful more often than dogs in the comparison population.
  • Cats were at an increased risk of relinquishment the more frequently they soiled the house, damaged things, or exhibited overly active behavior. In general, however, undesirable behaviors seemed to play a smaller role in cat relinquishments than in dog relinquishments.
  • More people relinquishing dogs and cats thought female animals would be better off if they had one litter before being spayed. Nearly half of the owners in the household survey—people who still had their pets—also believed this myth or did not know whether it was true or false.
  • People relinquishing dogs and cats were more likely to be men. People relinquishing dogs were more likely to be younger than 50, whereas those relinquishing cats were more likely to be younger than 35.
  • The risk of relinquishing an animal tended to decrease as the age of the pet owner increased.
  • People relinquishing animals were more likely not to have reached an educational level beyond high school.

In their discussion of the findings, researchers explored possible reasons for the differences they had discovered. When examining spay/neuter status, they posited that the cost of sterilizing animals might make owners more vested in the relationship with their pets, or that those owners who go to the trouble of spaying and neutering might be more committed to their pets in the first place.

The data collected did not reveal effects of owner lifestyles on pet behavior, but researchers surmised that this factor could be significant. "The report of dogs being overly active," they wrote, "could reflect a mismatch between the physical and psychological needs of the dog and the lifestyle of the owner."

In addition, the authors pointed out that behavior issues are not unique to relinquished dogs. "The dog with the annoying habit one day could be—for that very reason—the animal relinquished if the problem intensifies, other factors complicate the situation, or the owner's tolerance level decreases," researchers wrote.

Because length of ownership among relinquishers is often only a few months, the window of opportunity for educating new pet owners is narrow, according to the researchers. Even among people who still have their pets, knowledge of reproductive cycles and of the need for spaying and neutering is sorely lacking. Too many people still believe it is better for their pets' health if the animals have one litter prior to sterilization. "Although scientific evidence does not support this belief, it might explain some of the difficulty experienced by many individuals and groups who try to encourage the spaying of family pets," researchers write, "and documents a clear need for educational efforts aimed at this myth."

While some factors such as health and personal problems may place the decision to relinquish an animal beyond the control of the owner, problems related to behavior or lack of sterilization are most often preventable. Addressing the knowledge deficits among pet owners in general should be a priority, say the researchers; veterinary clinics, animal shelters, pet stores, breeders, and anyone else who cares about the welfare of companion animals can all play a crucial role.

*The comparison population for this study is skewed toward households that had a pet leave the household for a variety of different reasons (including death of the animal) during the year of the survey. Consequently, it might not represent the general population of pet-owning households. The potential effect of this must be considered when interpreting the findings.

To read this or other National Council studies, visit


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