Companion Animal Populations – Historical Context and Future Directions

Stephen Zawistowski, Ph.D.

Companion Animal Populations:
Historical Context and Future Directions


The organized movement to protect animals in America dates back to 1866 with the founding of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals by Henry Bergh. Bergh was the son of a wealthy ship building family, and brought a significant list of social and political contacts and a forceful personality to the task. People quickly took up his efforts across the country. The early humane movement prospered in the post-Civil War environment of important social changes. Many of the early proponents of the movement had been active in a variety of progressive activities such as the abolition of slavery and public health advocacy. The early efforts of the movement were often focused on the treatment and condition of horses, upon which transportation and commerce of the day depended.

Companion animals, dogs and cats, were not common in American homes, and were not central to the early work of animal welfare groups. Keeping dogs and cats as companions was often limited to people and families of more substantial means. Sections of many cities were overrun with numerous strays that posed a direct threat by harassing people and horses, and as potential disease vectors, especially rabies. Control of stray animals was managed through a hodge podge of bounties for their capture, and pounds for their containment. Early humane efforts were directed at the methods used to kill animals at these pounds. Beating, drowning and shooting were among the methods used. The Women’s SPCA of Pennsylvania, under the guidance of Caroline Earle White was the first humane group to take up the task of humane sheltering of companion animals. The WSPCA built and dedicated the “City Refuge for Lost and Suffering Animals” in 1874, and assumed the role of caring for Philadelphia’s stray dogs and cats. Their work was directed to providing treatment, boarding, placement in new homes and a quick and painless death when all else failed. To this end they commissioned the design of a gas chamber that represented a significant improvement above prevailing methods of the day.

The next several decades saw community animal control services assumed by humane groups with the emphasis on improving the conditions at the pounds and shelters, and developing and using more humane methods to kill the unwanted animals. This would be a dominant theme in the field through the mid-1900s. This theme of “how” not “how many” would trace the employment of electric shock, carbon monoxide and other gases, the decompression chamber, and finally lethal injection.

The first half of the twentieth century saw dramatic changes in the country’s social structure and demographic balance. The immigration surge at the turn of the century was followed by World War I, then the Depression and World War II. The US population moved from rural to urban to that new place in the sun, the suburbs. The economy changed from agriculture to industrial, and now to a service and information focus. It is not surprising therefore that the pet population changed at this time as well.

Records at the ASPCA for New York City stray numbers show a peak of over three hundred thousand animals per year during the Depression era. Dogs and cats had became more popular among families of all social classes, and they suffered displacement and homelessness along with their humans during the economic and social upheavals that took place. As families moved to the suburbs following WWII, the numbers of strays in urban areas decreased, and increased in the new bedroom communities surrounding cities.

Animal care information in the 1950s tended to present information on sterilization as a convenience to dog and cat owners, reducing problems with spraying, roaming, etc. During the 1960s literature began to highlight the role that sterilization could play in prevention unwanted litters of puppies and kittens. It was during the 1970s that spay/neuter became an important part of animal shelter operations and animal placement. The ASPCA instituted a mandatory sterilization policy for all animals adopted, starting in 1972. This topic was hotly debated at shelters across the country as they began to implement this requirement. The primary objection was that people would not adopt if they were required to sterilize the dog or cat. Wisdom prevailed however, and mandatory spay/neuter is standard at most shelters around the country.

The next twenty-five years would see dramatic changes in a number of areas of animal sheltering. Sterilization before adoption would become more common, and the important role of early sterilization of young dogs and cats. The numbers of dogs and cats entering shelters in some communities started to decline. This moved the euthanasia debate from “how” and “how many” to “why.” The growing “No Kill” movement would challenge shelters and the communities that they serve to evaluate the need to kill healthy dog and cats. This would have been difficult to imagine before population declines that resulted from efforts directed at responsible pet care and spay/neuter programs. In some ways, No Kill is the godchild of Spay/Neuter. Continued progress in efforts to reduce the numbers of unwanted dogs and cats will require additional information on origins and dynamics of pet populations.

 In 1993 the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy was formed to promote continued research on pet populations and develop strategies to reduce and eliminate the euthanasia of dogs and cats in animals shelters. Research published by the National Council in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science has shown that puppies and kittens no longer account for the majority of animals that enter shelters, that people bring animals to shelters for a wide range of reasons, and that animals entering shelters do not represent the majority of animals moving through a community. Many shelters now deal with an older population of dogs and cats, many with behavior problems. Interventions already in place at many shelters now focus on providing training and behavioral advice for adopters and the public. Further efforts at reaching the people and animals that do come to the shelter door will need to continue, and expand. Spay USA has helped pioneer this effort to help reduce the numbers of unwanted dogs and cats by reaching out to where they live, before they become a shelter statistic.

The above talk was delivered at the SPAY USA conference on July 7, 2000.

Permission to re-print Courtesy of the ASPCA



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