We know what homelessness means for a human being, you see them on the streets with their giant plastic bags of precious nothings.  But just when is a pet 'homeless'?  Mars Petcare took on the issue in a recent global study and what they discovered was fascinating.  In the US, UK, Germany, China, India, South Africa, Greece, Mexico, and Russia there are 224 million homeless pets living, of which 114 million are stray cats, 91 million are stray dogs and 19 million are stray cats and dogs in shelters.

While humans have been able to bring down pet killing rates down dramatically the gains are not all similar between countries.  Per example, in the 1970s the US was euthanizing 13.5 million homeless dogs and cats yearly; today, that’s down to about a million annually, even as the country’s pet dog and cat populations have more than doubled.  The primary driver of this trend has been pet sterilization.  However applying the same formula to India would mean sterilizing 30 to 50 million female dogs, something the underdeveloped country will not take on too quickly.  Some countries have seen success with a 'catch and release' policy.  If you walk the streets of Athens, Greece today you will see packs of a dozen or so dogs walk through Syntagma Square (their Times Square).  They are the result of being captured by authorities, being sterilized and then released unto the general population.

Why pet homelessness

Science tells us that both humans and pets benefit from the other’s companionship. For humans, research shows pet ownership can have positive physical and mental health impacts by reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and helping prevent heart disease, among other illnesses.  Thus if such happiness and welfare emanates from pet ownership why do we still have hundreds of stray pets roaming the streets and millions being killed at shelters? The State of Pet Homelessness Index took on that exact question.  One of the key drivers of pet homelessness turned out to be prohibitions on pets for renters.

Many apartment owners ban pets for any rental, fearful of damage and financial liability.  According to Index research, more than half of prospective owners said it’s hard to find a rental that allows dogs, and 1 in 4 agreed it was difficult to find one permitting cats. Specially in the large, congested cities, it is very difficult to find pet friendly RENTAL apartments. This locks up millions of homes for prospective loving pet homes.  Indeed if all apartments in the US allowed pets the pet euthanasia rate would disappear overnight.  As landlords will never take on financial risk, this is an issue that can only be addressed through legislation.

The second driver of pet homelessness, according to the Index was veterinary care.  One in three pet owners avoid the vet because of cost concerns.  This is a known issue in the US for humans as well as animals.  Quality care comes at a serious cost here.  While most of the developed world has instituted social health care for their human populations, no country in the world has a 'free veterinary service' policy.  Thinking about how to afford that new cancer medicine for grandma is quite different than paying for Fidos very expensive cure.  This issue is almost intractable and will not soon be resolved, and seeing how the US can't even provide for their under 65 year olds, it may never be resolved.

People thrive with pets, and pets thrive with people.  The work by Mars Petcare and the Index show the world has clearly made progress on the issue of pet homelessness.  The biggest 'bang for the buck' we can make now is to legislate a requirement that all rental units be pet friendly.  Second to that a national 'sterilization fund' and drive would mostly eliminate strays so prevalent in rural areas. The third element, low cost veterinary services, is a very long way off.  However by implementing the first two of the key drivers pet homelessness could pretty much disappear, as will the killing of pets in this nations shelters. And wouldn't that be a sunny day for humans as well?