Journal Article: Pet Owners Lack Basic Knowledge of Pets; Young, Intact Pets at Risk for Shelter Surrender

Title: Characteristics of Shelter-Relinquished Animals and Their Owners Compared With Animals and Their Owners in U.S. Pet-Owning HouseholdsTitle:

Authors: John C. New, Jr., M.D. Salman, Mike King, Janet M. Scarlett, Philip H. Kass, Jennifer M. Hutchison

Published: 2000 in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science

General overview: The authors wanted to better understand the risk factors for relinquishing a cat or a dog to an animal shelter. Using interview data from a sample of people who relinquished dogs and cats in 12 shelters in four regions and a sample of U.S. households with companion animals, the investigators compared animal characteristics and human characteristics between the relinquished and owned animals and their owners. The authors found that relinquished animals were more likely to be intact (not spayed for neutered), younger, mixed breed and owned for a shorter duration of time. People who relinquished animals tended to be men under the age of 35. This study was sponsored by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy.

My comments: 

Interview data issues

There are some pretty basic issues with interview data, which fall into the categories reliability, fairness and validity.

  1. Reliability in interview data focuses on whether an interviewer will score similar observations the same (intra-interviewer reliability) or different interviewers will score similar observations the same (inter-interviewer reliability). This study avoids much of this issue because they use a standardized questionnaire without, as far as I can tell, open-ended questions.
  2. Fairness issues with interview data have to deal with the representativeness of the subset of the general population (also known as the sample population) that was offered the questionnaire and the makeup of people who did fill out the questionnaire. I’m not sure this study has done quite a good job at addressing this one.
    • The shelters used as study sites for this research were located in California, Colorado, Tennessee, Kentucky, New Jersey and New York. There is no explanation for the selection of this shelters, leaving me to assume that they were convenient shelters to sample based on the researchers’ locations. (The first author is from the University of Tennessee, the second is from Colorado State University, etc.) This is probably not fair as a standalone issue but especially because of the regional differences that may exist throughout the United States in animal sheltering trends, which are not addressed in this paper.
      • The authors contend that the use of shelters across the U.S. aids the paper’s generalizability in the conclusions. However, I think the only real way to achieve a generalizable conclusion would have been if the shelters were equally representative of major geographic areas in the U.S. (both urban and rural, as well as north/south/east/west).
  3. The last major concern with interview data is validity, which I also this study fails to adequately address. The households that were sampled to achieve data on owned animals to compare to relinquished animals contained households that had relinquished animals to a shelter within the past year, which the authors acknowledge may not represent the general population of animal-owning households and may impact the interpretation of the findings.
    • In plain English, this means that the comparison population overlapped with the study population. So, when interpretation of the findings, I guess it would just be best not to compare these two populations at all because they are not clearly distinct populations.

Interesting Findings

Based on the methods section, I’m not comfortable with the comparison between the “owned” pet households and the relinquished pet individuals so I’m just going to highlight some of the findings the authors presented without the comparison.

Knowledge deficiency

I think one of the most interesting findings of this piece is the knowledge deficit displayed by survey respondents. Many people felt that female animals were better off having one litter before being spayed (WHY?), had fundamental misunderstandings of normal animal behavior, such as play behavior, and did not know “appropriate methods” of training. (The authors do not detail what they mean by “appropriate methods”.)

This highlights a real animal welfare issue and a substantial area for interventions. It’s an animal welfare issue because one of the five freedoms expounded by animal welfare advocates is the freedom to express normal behavior. If owners don’t understand what normal behavior is, an animal may not be permitted to express that behavior out of the owner’s preference. This finding emphasizes the need for increased humane education for pet owners to advance pets’ quality of life and possibly reduce the number of unwanted pets.

Young, intact animals are at risk for relinquishment

The authors found that young, intact animals were overrepresented in the relinquished animals population. The term “overrepresent” in the context of a survey means that a certain selection of a population appeared more frequently that its actual distribution in the general population, so I’m not sure how the authors determined this – you’d have to know the age/neuter status of the all pets in the U.S., which a quick Google search tells me are not known quantities. What can certainly be stated is that there were a lot of unaltered and young animals in the relinquished animals population. I worked at an animal shelter previously and this aligns with my personal experience as well. I wonder if this may relate to the knowledge deficit of normal animal behavior since young, intact animals are generally more active and untrained/disobedient than older animals.

I wish the authors had included a question about maturity level in pets because one area of knowledge deficiency that I identified during my employment at a shelter was the age at which animals should be considered as “adults”. Dogs and cats really aren’t socially/intellectually mature until around age two. I saw a number of one-year-old dogs dropped off at the shelter possibly because their families did not understand that they were dealing with an adolescent dog that would soon grow out of the unruly, moody temperament she currently exhibited.

Many pet owners could benefit from pet training and management education

The authors try to make a case for length of ownership being correlated with owner attachment, but since this directly involves comparison with the “owned” pet households, I can’t really commit myself to this finding. The authors note that behavior factors (notably house-soiling and biting) may play a role in the relinquishment of animals but they did find that behavior problems existed in the “owned” animal population as well. I’m not really sure what conclusions you can draw from this when you consider the lack of distinction between these two populations but I do agree that the existence of these behaviors indicates improper training or management practices and an area of needed improvement for both the pet’s quality of life and the owner’s.

Conclusion

So, in all, I think this research identified several areas of animal ownership that could be focused on for animal welfare and public health interventions as well as areas for future research. I don’t agree with the analysis the authors made between the study population and the comparison population but some interesting findings are still elucidated by the publication.

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