Lost dogs have fueled the overpopulation crisis in US animal shelters

About twice as many lost pets enter shelters compared to the number that are given up by their owners.

Ziggy's sad and distant gaze instantly filled with life as he connected with the eyes of what he thought would be his next family. 

Despite being 8 years old, this black and white boxer mix wagged his tail with joy at the exact moment a person approached his kennel at the Miami-Dade Pet Adoption and Protection Center in South Florida.

Ziggy has been at an animal shelter for more than 300 days after he was found lost on the street.

His story is one of countless cases of animals in shelters across the U.S. who have been picked up by animal welfare workers as strays, taken from homes where they were abused, or surrendered by their former owners who could no longer care for them.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates 6.5 million pets enter U.S. shelters each year.

Miami-Dade Animal Services
Ziggy arrived at the Miami-Dade Shelter in July of 2022 as a stray pet.

Shelter employees and animal experts say the number of abandoned pets – combined with a decline in adoption – continues to create an overwhelming burden for the nation's shelters, which lack the infrastructure and funding to house so many animals.

Shelters across the country grapple with overpopulation

Several shelters assure they’re on the verge of a critical overpopulation crisis with the number of pets, especially medium and large dogs, peaking this year. 

In Florida, an animal adoption center has an average capacity to house 250 pets. Right now, the shelter has the difficult task of providing shelter, food and medical care to more than 600 dogs and cats awaiting adoption.

Some of those pets have been waiting at the shelter for more than a year. 

Due to capacity, the shelter has asked the community to avoid surrendering pets and to temporarily foster any lost pets until they can be reunified.

The Miami-Dade Pet Adoption and Protection Center has an average capacity to house 250 pets. Right now, the shelter has the difficult task of providing shelter, food and medical care to more than 600 dogs and cats who are desperately awaiting adoption.

“The national crisis is really impacting individual pets,” said Flora Beal, public affairs administrator at Miami-Dade’s Pet Adoption Center. “The length of stay or time that pets are waiting for their forever family is increasing by a lot because there’s a shortage of adopters.” 

Intake for animal shelters in the US

From 2019 to 2022, local animal shelters in the United States saw an increase in the number of abandoned pets entering their facilities. Hover over the graphic to see more information.

Note: The data in this graphic was provided by the organization Shelter Animals Count (SAC) and is only based on population estimates from participating shelters in the U.S. The data does not fully represent national animal shelter population.

Data: Shelter Animals Count • Graphic: Nina Lin / NBC

An average of 4.2 million pets are adopted each year in the U.S., according to the ASPCA. 

While this statistic may seem encouraging, the reality is that the overpopulation issue persists – the number of pets arriving is more than the number of adoptions. 

Owners giving up or “surrendering” their pets is often considered the main reason why pets end up at shelters, but that’s not the case. 

During the peak of the pandemic, adoptions skyrocketed because many people were looking for companionship during the harsh -- and often lonely -- confinements of quarantine. As the world reopened, shelters in FL saw approximately a 9% increase in their pet population from 2020 to 2021, according to data from Shelter Animals Count, an organization that provides data on animal shelters.

The main factor was thought to be the return to in-person work for many people. 

According to Beal, this isn't true – at least not in Miami-Dade County, where she says 85% of people who adopted during the pandemic have kept their pets.

“They’re not returning their pets,” said Beal. “What’s really happening now is that we can’t get them out [from the shelter] fast enough to keep up with the pets that are coming in.”

An ASPCA survey reported that one in five households acquired a cat or dog during the pandemic and 87% of people surveyed said they would not consider rehoming their pet.

Nationally, data shows that owner surrenders have not increased in the last year but instead remained constant at around 25%, according to a report published by SAC.

The reason why so many pets end up in shelters 

Pets, especially dogs, come to shelters for a variety of reasons: puppies from unwanted litters, dogs that can no longer be cared for by their owners, or abused dogs that have had to be rescued by animal welfare workers. 

But there is a reason why the majority of dogs end up in shelters and it’s something that has been slowly driving the overpopulation crisis for years. 

At the root of it all are lost dogs that don’t make it back home, according to Beal. 

Cristina Gonzalez, Telemundo Digital
Photos of dogs up for adoption line a wall at the Miami-Dade Adoption Center. Due to capacity, these dogs aren't at the facility for potential adopters to see.

An open door or fence can mean a dog disappears in a matter of seconds before their owners notice, and it happens every day. Mobile apps like Ring’s Neighbors App, are flooded with messages about pets that have been reported missing or found wandering lost. 

The pets that don't find their families often end up in shelters, either taken in by animal services or by a member of the community. 

About twice as many pets enter shelters as strays compared to the number that are given up by their owners.

According to a recent report published by SAC, the number of strays entering U.S. shelters has increased in 2023 -- 8% higher than last year and 26% higher than 2021.

The life of a lost pet in a shelter environment

At the Miami-Dade Adoption Center, lost pets (or “strays”) have a 3-day waiting period where their owner can come and pick them up. At some shelters around the country, this wait is even shorter -- 48 hours or less.

If no one comes forward, the pet is put up for adoption. The start of a waiting game that can last years for some pets.

The Miami-Dade County facility has a “no kill” policy – animals are not euthanized for capacity reasons, according to the shelter. However, this is not standard operating procedure for all shelters nationwide.

Each year, an estimated 920,000 pets in shelters are euthanized, according to the ASPCA.

“The last place that you want your pet is in a shelter,”

Flora Beal, public affairs administrator at Miami-Dade’s Pet Adoption Center

As animal welfare advocates continue to fight to end euthanasia, the number of dogs and cats euthanized annually in U.S. shelters has declined from a peak of 2.6 million in 2011.

Beal asserts that those who find a lost pet on the street have several options they can pursue to ensure the animal can be reunited with its owners – taking them to a shelter should be the last option. 

"Think of the pets you find not as strays, but as lost pets that someone is looking for," Beal said. "When you bring a pet into the shelters, their chances of being reunified with their family go down to less than 10% in Miami-Dade County, less than 20% nationally."

While municipal animal caretakers work to provide food and care for hundreds of pets in their shelters, Beal says the confined environment can have a dramatic effect on a pet's behavior, causing them to become disconnected, fearful or even aggressive. 

All of this can prevent them from being adopted. 

“The last place that you want your pet is in a shelter,” Beal said. “It really is a stressful environment for them.” 

Two dogs sit inside their kennels inside the Miami-Dade Adoption Center.Cristina Gonzalez, Telemundo Digital
10 year old Passion, an American Bulldog mix (A1635967) and 3 year old Damien (A2449586) sit inside their kennels at the Miami-Dade Adoption Center. Both dogs were found as strays.

“It’s much easier for one person to find one pet a home, than for us to find 500 pets a home,” Beal added. 

How to help a lost pet find their way back home in your local community 

According to a recent study, most lost pets are found within one mile of home. Instead of dropping a pet off at a shelter, here are some ways you can help:

  • Find a safe place for the pet: If you find a lost pet, try to approach them safely. Having a treat and staying calm can help. Once secured, take the pet to a safe space while you search for its owners and give it food and water if you can. 
  • Check for identification: check to see if the pet is wearing a collar with a tag. The tag may have the pet's name or owner information so you can contact them. 
  • Walk with the pet in the area where you found it: dogs often recognize the area where they are and may lead you to their home. If the owner is looking for the pet, walking around the neighborhood may make it easier for them to reunite. 
  • Upload the pet's photo to Petco Love Lost. Using the database, you can report a lost pet. You can also create an alert that you can share on other social platforms, like Facebook. 
  • Check if the pet is microchipped: if the pet is microchipped, the vet, police and local pet supply stores can easily scan it and see if information about the owner appears.

1 in 3 pets go missing in their lifetime. This organization uses facial recognition to help reunite them

Seeing a real issue in the increasing amount of lost pets ending up in shelters, one organization is on a mission to show how something as simple as a photo can be a powerful tool to help reunite pets. 

Petco Love, a nonprofit organization previously known as PetCo Foundation, hopes to eliminate unnecessary euthanasia in shelters and offer a solution to the overwhelming amount of lost pets. 

"Nationally, no one was really focused on addressing the lost pet population coming in and getting them reunited,” said Susanne Kogut, president of Petco Love.

That’s why Kogut says they have taken the initiative to transform the way the industry deals with missing pets.

One in three pets go missing in their lifetime, amounting to about 10 million lost animals each year, according to the organization's website. 

When this happens, an owner has a list of steps to follow to find their lost pet. According to Kogut, this list isn’t followed often and that’s part of the problem.

"When we look at all the things people are told to do when they lose their pet, it is overwhelming to the point where that person who lost their pet is absolutely frantic," Kogut said.

Kogut, who works with more than 2,100 shelters in the U.S., says she’s seen a significant increase in the number of lost pets entering shelters in recent years.

“The number of stray animals coming into shelters is higher than it’s been in the last couple of years,” Kogut said. "Over 40% of the animals that come into shelters are strays, so we are working with shelters to make sure all the shelter animals are making it into our database.” 

The virtual database works through image recognition technology and is made for anyone who has found, lost or owns a pet.

Currently, Petco Love Lost contains photos of more than 170,000 pets and has helped more than 20,000 families be reunited with their four-legged loved ones since July 2021.

"It's really uploading a photo. Our database works by image recognition technology, because there are a lot of lost pets, especially in big cities," said Kogut. "The image recognition technology will show them which of the found animals in our database might be theirs.” 

Petco Love
After being lost for three months, Petco Love Lost reunited Beast with his family using the national database.

The steps to use the virtual database are simple. Someone who has lost a pet can log on to the website and click on the "I lost a pet" section.

You will be asked to verify your location so the database can search for pets found in your area. The next step is the most important: upload a photo of the pet. 

The system will analyze the photo and look for possible similar pets, including those found in shelters near the area. 

If the database doesn’t detect the pet, you can still register their photo and the database will continue to search as more lost pets are reported. Knowing how easy it is for a pet to get lost and how nerve-wracking that moment can be, Petco Love Lost allows anyone to register their pet even if they aren't missing.

"A lot of people have photos of their pets on their phone and they're probably always easily accessible," Kogut said. "But when you lose your pet you're pretty frantic and trying to register when you're full of anxiety makes things more difficult. If you're already registered, it's as simple as hitting a button."

Kogut hopes that eventually all shelters in the country will join Petco Love Lost, making it a central system with every missing pet registered. 

“Ideally, every shelter in the country [would be] feeding into this one central system. We like to say that if they (pets) all come in, they all go home," Kogut said.

The organization recently announced a partnership with the Neighbors App, so that any message about a lost or found pet is automatically uploaded to the database. 

Petco Love
A worker uploads a photo of a lost dog that arrived at the East Valley shelter in Los Angeles, California to the Petco Love Lost database.

As Ziggy turns 9 years old and suprasses the 1 year mark at the Miami-Dade Adoption Center, shelter staff are still hopeful that a loving family is out there for him. If you’d like to meet Ziggy, you can visit the shelter and schedule a meetup or browse more pets at the shelter here.

Your pet has gone missing. Here's how to make sure they make it back home

  • Make sure your pet always wears a collar with identification and that they're microchipped. You must register their microchip with your contact information.
  • Make sure the front door and backyard fence is not left open to prevent your pet from easily escaping.
  • Register your pet on Petco Love Lost so that your pet’s profile is saved. If your pet goes missing, you can easily report them as lost on the database and anyone who finds them can contact you. 

For more information on Clear The Shelters, including participating shelters and rescues and details on local events, visit ClearTheShelters.com and the Spanish-language site DesocuparlosAlbergues.com.

Additional project contributors:
Data Visualizations: Nina Lin
Motion Graphics Designer: Erin Panell
Copy Editor: Steve Coulter
Videographer: Cristina Gonzalez/Auggie Gonzalez

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