Unwanted and Unowned Companion Animals
- 13.1 Introduction
- 13.2 Why Do Companion Animals Become Unwanted?
- 13.3 Ethical Issues for Owners with Unwanted Companions: Shelters and Abandonment
- 13.4 Euthanasia of Unwanted Healthy Companion Animals
- 13.5 Unowned Animal Populations: Numbers and Relationships
- 13.6 Managing Unowned Populations
Many dogs and cats live their entire lives under the care and protection of human owners, and most of the ethical questions we have considered so far in this book arise within the context of ongoing companion animal relationships. However, these relationships may fail. Owners’ circumstances may change, meaning that they either cannot, or no longer want to, live with their companions. This raises difficult questions about what to do with an unwanted companion; choices include rehoming, abandonment, relinquishment to a shelter, and euthanasia. The decision whether to euthanase a healthy companion raises significant ethical questions for vets and shelter workers, as well as for the owner. We consider ethical questions raised by unwanted companion animals in the first part of this chapter.
Some unwanted companion animals end up homeless, joining existing unowned populations of stray and feral animals. In industrialised Western nations, because of concerns about public health and nuisance, the welfare of the animals themselves, or wildlife protection, these populations are generally managed. But doing so opens up highly controversial ethical issues – for instance, whether to permit or support trap-neuter-return cat colonies. In the second part of this chapter, we consider broader ethical issues raised by managing populations, primarily of unowned cats.
Why do owners come to the point of relinquishing, abandoning or euthanasing their healthy companion animals? Studies have mostly been carried out with owners who are in the process of relinquishing animals to shelters for possible adoption or euthanasia. These studies consistently find similar explanations as to why companion animals have become unwanted, though the significance of each reason varies between studies (which may reflect national and cultural differences) and to some degree between dogs and cats. It is worth noting, though, that some researchers, when interviewing people visiting animal shelters to relinquish their animal, found that in the course of in-depth interviews, the initial reason the owner gave for relinquishing their animals changed, or turned out to be only part of the reason for relinquishment (Irvine, 2003). Thus, caution is required when evaluating self-reported reasons for relinquishment.
The main reasons given for relinquishing companion animals at shelters are changes in circumstances (in particular, moving home, new landlords that do not permit animal companions, a new baby, and divorce), ‘bad behaviour’ (see Chapter 9) and allergies. Other common reasons are that caring for the animal is too time-consuming (especially dogs), that the animal costs too much to maintain, that the owner is having personal problems, or that the owner has too many companion animals already (Scarlett et al., 1999). DiGiacomo, Arluke & Patronek (1998), for instance, found that 27% of animals were relinquished to shelters because of moving home or divorce, that 26.4% of dogs were relinquished for ‘bad behaviour’, 12% of animals were relinquished because the owners lacked time or money to deal with them, and another 12% because they had ‘too many animals’. Economic downturn can contribute to an increase in animal abandonments and relinquishments, especially where owners’ properties have been foreclosed (Nowicki, 2011).
New et al. (2000) identified certain risk factors for animals being relinquished to shelters: being intact, younger and of a mixed breed; having an owner younger than the age 35, especially a male owner; and not having been owned for very long. Unsurprisingly, one study found that attachment scores (discussed in Chapter 3) were significantly lower for owners relinquishing animals at a shelter in comparison with those bringing animals to a shelter for vaccination (Kwan & Bain, 2013). In the case of dogs, a further risk factor for relinquishment seems to be membership of a breed that is particularly demanding in terms of behaviour or care but that is enjoying temporary fad or status popularity. In the United Kingdom, for instance, acquisitions of wolf-like dogs such as Malamutes, Huskies and Sarloos surged after these dogs’ appearance in popular TV shows and films around 2011; but relinquishments soon followed, as these dog breeds can be difficult to live with (Blue Cross, 2012).
The situations described above raise questions as to when it is ethically acceptable to deliberately separate from one’s companion, and what options it is acceptable to choose.
In cases where an owner really has no choice but to part with a companion animal – perhaps because a disabling illness renders them unable to take care of the animal – then the separation itself is not an ethical issue. Almost all ethicists accept a principle usually called ‘ought implies can’ – you can only be required to do something when you are able to do it. The situation is less clear-cut when an owner could keep an animal, but there are greater (or lesser) pressures to do otherwise, although here, too, much of what is at stake ethically concerns what the options for the companion actually are.
In some cases, it may be possible to find an animal a good home with friends or family, where – although there may initially be distress on both sides – not only will the animal’s needs be met, but it will also have good welfare. Some ethicists argue that this kind of arrangement is the only ethically acceptable way of parting from an animal companion. So, Burgess-Jackson (1997) argues:
I have an obligation in such a case to find another home for the animal, and not just someone who will take the dog in. My responsibility is to find someone who will fulfil the dog’s primary needs just as I would, if I could.
However, such good homes are often very difficult to find. For many people, the only alternatives may be relinquishing healthy animals to a shelter, abandoning them, or having them euthanased either at the shelter or at a veterinary clinic. So, the first consideration here is whether owners can attempt to overcome the difficulties created by keeping the animal. While financial issues may be tough to resolve, other issues (for instance, behavioural ones – see Chapter 9) may be prevented, or resolved, if help is available – for example, some organisations offer courses for owners and their puppies or young dogs aimed at basic training and socialization. Many veterinary practices (in industrialised Western countries) also offer a variety of services, including holding ‘puppy parties’ (for early socialisation) and training classes, and arranging consultations for owners with ‘problem’ pets to receive advice from specialists in animal behaviour. On most ethical views, trying to prevent behavioural problems from occurring, and treating them if they do occur, is the best solution. This prevents predictable suffering or death for the animal, as well as the individual and community costs of abandonment, sheltering, or euthanasing the animal, and it strengthens the attachment of the owner to the animal.
But supposing that the potential problems cannot be overcome, and a good alternative home cannot be identified, what ethical issues are raised by the remaining options: a shelter, abandonment or euthanasia?
The ASPCA (n.d.) estimates that 7.9 million cats and dogs enter shelters each year in the United States, roughly 3.9 million dogs and 3.4 million cats. Of these, according to the ASPCA, about twice as many are picked up and brought to the shelter as are directly owner-relinquished. In the case of dogs, a significant proportion (26%) are returned to their owners (so these are stray, rather than abandoned, dogs) but less than 5% of cats are returned to owners. A study of three animal shelters in Melbourne found that 15.1% of the dogs admitted to the shelter were relinquished by their owners (and 8% of relinquishing owners requested immediate euthanasia for their dog); but all the rest were brought in as strays (Marston, Bennett & Coleman, 2004). These statistics may suggest that more people abandon than relinquish their animals; nonetheless, clearly many people do choose to relinquish to the shelter either for adoption or euthanasia (where this is permitted by the shelter).
When an animal is relinquished to a shelter for adoption, its basic needs in terms of food, hydration and protection are normally met. However, in other respects, it is often difficult for shelters, which are usually constrained in terms of budget, space and staffing, to provide for other aspects of welfare beyond looking after the fulfilment of the animals’ physiological needs. Shelter animals are usually confined in small spaces for long periods of time, and may have insufficient social contact of the right kind (with friendly and known humans and members of their own species), or too much social contact of the wrong kind (with unknown humans and hostile animals). A further source of stress is high noise levels within the shelter environment (Coppola, Enns & Grandin, 2006). Research indicates that during their first 3 days in an animal shelter, dogs’ cortisol levels (a physiological indicator of stress) ‘are almost three times those of normal household dogs’ (Coppola, Enns & Grandin, 2010), although these levels diminish over time as the animal becomes, to some degree, acclimatised to the shelter environment. While the impact of the stressors can be reduced by attempts to improve housing, social interaction and environmental stimulation, and reduce noise, for both dogs and cats, a shelter environment is stressful, especially in the first few days (Figure 13.1).
If there is a positive outcome of successful adoption from a shelter, however, this stress appears worthwhile from virtually every perspective: the animal is not killed, it can reasonably be expected to have a good life, and the adopter has a new companion. However, if the animal is not adopted, the future looks less good: the animal may be ‘warehoused’ (confined for long periods in a small cage), or, if it is in an open access shelter (i.e. a shelter that accepts all animals brought in, rather than accepting only those it can adopt out), the animal may be euthanased. In California, for instance, 81% of cats impounded in open access shelters were ultimately euthanased (Kass, 2005); in 1997, in the United States, it is estimated that 64% of all the animals that entered shelters were euthanased, although some of these may have been sick (AHA, n.d.). These statistics may have changed in the United States recently due to more focus on rehoming shelter animals in so-called no-kill shelters (see more on this below), and they may vary somewhat across nations, but in most countries, more than half of the animals in animal shelters are euthanased. (We will return to the ethical issues raised by euthanasia of healthy but unwanted companion animals shortly.)
Finkler & Terkel (2012) speculate that, in the case of cats at least, knowing about high euthanasia rates in shelters encourages owners to prefer abandonment to shelter relinquishment: ‘It is … possible that people also believe it to be more moral to abandon the cat to the street than to relinquish it to a shelter’. Could those who think that abandonment may be better, be right?
It is unlikely that any general conclusion could be drawn here. Which is ethically preferable will depend on whether the animal concerned is a dog or a cat, whether the animal is likely to be ‘adoptable’, and what kind of history and experience the animal has, as well as broader social and environmental issues (see Chapter 14). It is also worth noting that in many countries, abandonment is illegal. In Western industrialised countries, most abandoned dogs are captured and taken to shelters (although in some North American inner cities and rural areas of southern Europe, especially Italy, abandoned dogs may join feral or semi-feral dog populations). Most dogs have been entirely dependent on human provision and care, and are completely inexperienced in providing for themselves; their welfare following abandonment is likely to be poor. Given this, and the likelihood that they will be captured anyway, relinquishment to a shelter generally looks like a better option than abandonment in terms of dog welfare, even without considering broader social and environmental issues (which are likely to reinforce this judgement).
The situation for cats is less clear. While some cats may have been indoor-only cats, many owned cats have significant outdoor experience, and have hunted and eaten their own prey; they may be more able to support themselves and live independently or semi-independently, and may be able to find a new owner themselves (theoretically, dogs too could find a new owner in this way). Nonetheless, the life of an abandoned cat is a risky one: the animal needs to find sufficient food and shelter, and faces a number of hazards, including contracting diseases, being hit by cars (the major cause of mortality in unowned cats) and being attacked by hostile or predatory animals. In addition, an abandoned cat may be a nuisance or a disease risk to people, as well as preying on wildlife (see the section of this chapter on unowned populations, and Chapter 14). This suggests that in many cases, in terms of the welfare of the cat itself, as well as people and other living things, relinquishment to a shelter is better than abandonment. However, there may be cases where a particular cat is very unlikely to be adopted, plausibly has tolerable welfare if left to support itself, does not pose a significant threat to others, and the only realistic alternative is a period in a shelter followed by euthanasia (the eventual outcome for the majority of cats in shelters). In a case of this kind, abandonment may be preferable. However, what one thinks about this depends on what one concludes about the ethics of euthanasing healthy but unwanted animals, as this is the destiny of so many animals that are relinquished to shelters.
Euthanasia of healthy but unwanted companion animals may be requested by owners at veterinary surgeries or in some cases at shelters; open-access shelters, as we have seen, also euthanase significant numbers of animals that are either thought to be not adoptable, or not adopted after some period of time. This raises ethical issues about when it is permissible to humanely kill a healthy animal, and whether being unwanted and/or unadopted is sufficient reason.
Different ethical perspectives take divergent approaches to humane killing, as was discussed in Chapter 5. A utilitarian with a hedonist approach to welfare, for instance, aims at bringing about best outcomes, measured in terms of maximising pleasures, net of pain. On this view, killing is not in principle problematic, but may be ethically questionable when the killing process itself causes pain and distress, and/or when killing would mean more suffering and less pleasure in the world.