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A New Approach to Pet Overpopulation

Pet overpopulation is not just about the heartbreak of having to euthanize so many four-legged innocents who wind up in municipal animal shelters every year. All those unwanted pets are a real economic burden to local governments. The ASPCA estimates that the annual number killed is 1.5 million. While that is down from 2.6 million in 2011, it is still far too many. Spaying and neutering are as important as ever to avoid adding more animal control expenses to already strained budgets.

That is where framing comes in. In the Governing article “How to Reduce the Opioid Epidemic’s Stigma,” Mark Funkhouser sheds light on the  Frameworks Institute.  They use social science to help governments present messages to which constituents are more receptive. He was writing about the opioid crisis. As it turns out, a study by the institute concluded that emphasizing the interdependence of mutual goals was the most effective in getting public support for treatment programs. Appealing to empathy was not. Keeping this in mind, can framing the pet overpopulation problem in a way that highlights how it affects the greater society be worth a try?

The Financial Costs of Pet Overpopulation

Pet overpopulation is expensive. Donna Ward, of Lee County Florida Animal Control Services, reported to a  local NBC news station that their five year total for euthanizing 25,000 animals was over $20 million. So, what else can that sum buy? Below are some very rough estimates. It’s a wakeup call to help the public understand the far-reaching consequences of unwanted litters. Let’s use a one-year period. Four million dollars might be able to purchase:

  • 2 brand new state-of-the-art fire trucks
  • 50 universal access playgrounds
  • 31,000 pothole repairs
  • 54,000 packs of opioid reversal spray for first responders
  • 670,000 school lunches

Of course, actual costs will vary widely across regions. The point is to help people connect their pet parenting choices to municipal finances. Saving money could mean restored services or fewer tax increases.

The Human Toll of Pet Overpopulation

Money that could be better spent elsewhere is only one negative side effect of pet overpopulation. It also takes a heavy psychological toll on those who must put adoptable pets down. Despite negative stereotypes,  the majority of both public and private shelter workers are caring, highly dedicated professionals who choose their work because they love animals. Yet, it can have long-term consequences for their mental health. Their suicide rate is equal to that of firefighters and police officers. Other symptoms they may experience include compassion fatigue, substance abuse, sleeplessness and depression.

Even some of the most socially conscious people cannot resist the temptation to let their dogs have puppies to experience the miracle of birth. But the homes these puppies find could go to dogs already waiting to be adopted at the local shelter. Is the joy of canine/feline motherhood really worth contributing to the emotional burden that animal control officers must carry as a consequence of their jobs?

New Approaches to Try

I have not come across research that has studied the following two activities. They are suggestions I would like to introduce in the hope that others may refine them:

Make it Hit Home Locally. Municipalities can come up with specifics from their own budgets on how much pet overpopulation costs them. What else could that money have been used for? Impactful statistics are perfect for websites and social media. One more use for open data.

This-for-That Campaigns. Remember when you were a kid, and your parents said you could have that expensive toy if you were willing to make cutbacks somewhere else? Maybe your community wants a dog park renovation or the return of a music festival, but it is just not in the budget. Figure out how much it would cost. Then estimate how much money would be saved if x number of pets were altered. Get the public, local vets and private animal welfare groups to work together. Foundations like PetSmart Charities and Bissell are two of many organizations that provide grants to help offset the costs of spaying and neutering. If the goal is reached, the reward can be implemented.

In these times when local governments are looking to trim costs any way they can, curbing pet overpopulation is not only humane but fiscally responsible. Purse strings and puppy tails can rejoice together.

Further Reading: Beyond Spay and Neuter

Too many litters are just one reason for crowded shelters. Many people are forced to give up their pets due to economic hardships or other life circumstances. A low budget, public-private partnership between South LA Animal Control and Downtown Dog Rescue has been successful in helping divert pets from public facilities.

Read about the Shelter Intervention Program.

Read about their impressive four year anniversary results.

Want to replicate this program? Founders Lori Weise and Nicole Bruckman have written a guide.

Sherie Sanders is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

Thanks for sharing this! I love the notion of a this-for-that campaign in this context. This was a tough topic to grapple with emotionally, but it’s a helpful piece in showing that how a community frames a problem can have drastic effects, whether on the local budget or on its citizens’ heartstrings.