Myth-busting: Shelter pet adoption and owner surrender stats dispel false assumptions


A note from Vetsource:

We’ve all heard and perhaps even made assumptions about pet adoptions increasing during the pandemic and now the media has also been touting an increase in owner surrenders as more Americans return to work. As a data company, we were thrilled to find actual stats and data on the matter from Steve Zeidman of PetPoint, a 24Pet Company. Here’s what he had to say…

Steve Zeidman on pandemic pet adoption and owner surrender stats

In 2020, I was on my way to the airport when I got the call that all travel was canceled, and our offices, globally, were to close until further notice. I headed to my home office, checked on my team (most of whom already work remotely), and then I stopped to think about the impact this would have on our clients, humane societies, animal control agencies, rescue groups, and any organizations caring for animals in need. 

A closeup of a woman hugging her dog.For the last 11 years, we have been publishing monthly statistics on animal welfare trends, looking at data from the 1,400+ organizations that use our software product, PetPoint. Unlike all the other sources of animal welfare statistics, we had the unique opportunity to access real-time data and it occurred to me—lightbulb moment!—that this data was critical in getting out valuable information to our clients and national partners as the pandemic unfolded.

We released the first 24Pet ShelterWatch® report a week after the lockdown was implemented and have continued to provide data ever since. We were so happy to see such positive responses from the industry but we were surprised how quickly these reports were being distributed in the veterinary and pet products space, not to mention national media coverage. It has been an honor for our team to have had the opportunity to get the story out there about animals in the care of shelters.

Along with getting accurate and timely data out, we have also been able to dispel inaccuracies as they developed. Two of the most public instances have been the idea that pet adoptions increased in 2020 and then returns/owner surrenders jumped in 2021.

The 2020 pet adoption myth:
Pet adoptions increased during the COVID-19 crisis.

An infographic of pet adoption stats in the US and also by state.The fact is, pet adoptions could not increase because intakes dropped so significantly (32% for dogs and 23% for cats) in the one-year period since the start of the pandemic. There simply hasn’t been the same availability of animals up for adoption.

There are many factors for the drop in adoptions but one very important one is the rapid rollout of the intake diversion programs shelters have put in place, especially where facilities were closing temporarily or had only a skeleton staff on-site due to the crisis. The relatively young movement to support keeping pets with their families went from a worthy secondary program to a critical primary strategy for keeping people (our staff and the public) safe. And it has worked, even as we start to see a slight uptick, it does not look like it will ever return to the numbers of the previous year. 

To me, the most important number is this: Euthanasia is down 44% in one year. Click To Tweet

In any other situation, this would be the news story, but somehow it has gotten lost in this crazy year. This is evidence of the true life-saving impact of the latest measures implemented by animal welfare organizations.

While we are acknowledging these victories within our collective, the media (and some big corporations) are missing them. They are solely focused on adoptions. Our data, along with many other data sources, are being misinterpreted, leading the public to believe adoptions are up, year over year… we know better! Adoptions are not up—the direct result of there being fewer animals in care. 

In 2020, pet adoptions actually dropped by 24%.

I can’t help but think that we are partly responsible for this myopic view of our movement; adoptions make for wonderful feel-good news stories. Show up to a tv studio with puppies and the public is enamored. But as we have known for many years, we were never going to adopt our way out of pet overpopulation. Spay/neuter, intake diversion programs, and community services are having the impact we believed they would… now that’s a story to tell!

The 2021 owner surrender myth:
Owner surrenders are increasing as people emerge from lockdown.

A bar graph showing the dog intake trends by type for 2020-2021.Recently there are new stories hitting national and local news outlets reporting that the number of animals being returned to shelters and surrendered by owners is spiking as people return to life. While equally sensational, this narrative is also completely untrue.

Looking at April, last year vs. this year, in a vacuum, you might believe you have all the proof you need. But April of last year was the start of the pandemic, and the numbers show that many shelters drastically reduced both intakes and outcomes as they navigated how to operate amidst shutdowns. As we have been reporting for months, following the initial impact on animal populations in March and April, shelters began to move to a “new normal” with significantly fewer animals from 2019 but following the annual pattern. 

Additionally, the data shows a drastic difference between cats and dogs. Cat numbers are much closer to those from 2019 while dog numbers remain extremely low. Click to enlarge the intake data above:

Let’s set the record straight on pet adoption and owner surrenders

Each time these stories break, we end up having many conversations with media outlets, national organizations, and our clients yet the stories persist. How do we as an industry make sure the media, and honestly members within our body, understand the larger data landscape before we let anecdotal data define our progress? 

We have so much to be proud of and much of the work we did in 2020 continues to hold strong in 2021. We in the industry and the public are doing right by animals in need; doing everything possible to keep them in their loving homes … we need to tell that story and ensure it stays that way!


A note from Vetsource:

Thank you to Steve Zeidman of PetPoint, a 24Pet Company for giving us facts instead of speculation. To balance these animal welfare statistics, you could also check out the Vetsource Veterinary Industry Tracker and the new Premium version for more interactive drill-down capabilities.



Steve Zeidman, the author.Steve Zeidman has more than 20 years of industry experience and is a leading expert in animal welfare technology and shelter operations. He is currently the Senior Vice President, Software Solutions for Pethealth Inc where he oversees data management solutions for shelters and rescues under the PetPoint brand while also supporting Chameleon, a recent addition to the Pethealth family. Steve has built a reputation as a leader and a key contributor to animal welfare. He is currently the Past Board Chair of the Catalyst Council, has served as head of research for PetSmart Charities, and a founding board member of Shelter Animals Count. Steve started his career in animal welfare with Animal Care Centers of NYC. Steve is a Certified Animal Welfare Administrator and holds a Master of Science in Information Systems from City University of New York – Baruch College and a Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration from the University of Southern California.

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