It’s a Dog’s Life — You Wish

by tim w. ferguson

tim ferguson, the former editor of Forbes’s Asia edition, writes about business, economics and society.

Published March 14, 2020.


The 1970s were infamously the time in which the U.S. middle class began its long decline. But while their version of the American Dream has been going to the dogs since, the fate of pet canines in many of those same homes has vastly improved.

By various measures — care and feeding, the chances of ending up in a shelter or dying there — the world of 2020 is a far happier one than what your average Labradoodle or Gerberian Shepsky (that’s right, a mix of German Shepherd and Siberian Husky) faced 50 years before. While upward of $1 billion a year is still spent on public animal control and a few billion more by non-profits, the key variable in improving pet prospects has almost certainly been in better training of their masters.

Human habits are changing — four-legged friends are more likely to be welcomed (indoors) as fuller-fledged family members — and government has used mandatory licensing, financial incentives for sterilization and more humane supervision of impounded animals to curb dreadful outcomes. And if you think those ghastly pictures on the Humane Society mailings haven’t significantly nudged public attitudes in the meantime, you think wrong.

If this good news is not widely appreciated, it’s partly because it’s hard to quantify. Records are kept inconsistently in the states and municipalities. At the national level, veterinary and pet-product associations have compiled only sporadic counts. The best overall assessment is a 2018 paper by Andrew Rowan, then chief scientist at the Humane Society of the United States, and Tamara Kartal of Humane Society International.

Till the ’70s, canine ownership in most of America was on a much longer leash. The dog house, literal or not, was usually outside, and often no fence — certainly not an electronic one — kept such pets from running at large, whatever the legal strictures. Perhaps a quarter of the dog population roamed the streets. Even in big cities, pooper-scooper laws hadn’t yet gained force. (The first was in Nutley, N.J., in 1971, with New York City notably coming around a few years later.) As many as 13 million dogs and cats were euthanized after impoundment in 1973 and “overpopulation” of pets— much as that of humans — became a topic of learned discussion.

What followed (in a country that resists Nanny in every incarnation) was a resolve to sterilize, both at shelters and private veterinary clinics, together with local license-fee incentives for pet owners to choose the procedure. Also, the first implanted microchips allowed more lost dogs to be found. The Humane Society estimates these practices cut the nation’s shelter intake (including cats) by nearly half in 12 years, to less than 10 million animals in 1985. The figure for dogs is now down to about 4 million. 

Even more happily, the kill count at shelters has steadily dropped, to well under 1 million dogs annually. And the figure is headed toward zero in some cities.

If you think those ghastly pictures on the Humane Society mailings haven’t significantly nudged public attitudes, you think wrong.

These favorable trends have continued in spite of intermittent upsurges in lockup of commonly abused breeds like pit bulls. And it has been maintained even as the pet dog population in the U.S. has taken off by 30 percent just since 2000 (to 90 million). The driving force behind the explosion in dog ownership and the implosion of euthanasia is that decidedly more pets are being adopted from today’s shelters, or “rescued” through thousands of charities.

As late as 1988 in New Jersey, a leader in modern animal control, less than a third of dogs taken into shelters were adopted. That percentage took off across the U.S. in the early 2000s. An Ad Council campaign for animal adoptions beginning in 2009 added to the consciousness-raising by rescue groups. The Shelter Animals Count organization reported for 2016 that more than half the dogs (and even a higher percentage of cats) at such facilities found new homes.

While the picture is a statistical patchwork, it does appear divided along familiar sociopolitical grounds. Basing comparisons on state data, Rowan and Kartal sketch a portrait that looks decidedly more flattering in blue/purple regions than red. For example: “New Hampshire euthanized 0.26 dogs per 1,000 people in 2012 whereas North Carolina euthanized almost 25 times more dogs per 1,000 people (6.45 dogs per 1,000 humans) in 2013.” Adoptable dogs in the Northeast are scarce, while they remain abundant in much of the South. A few jurisdictions, including California and Maryland and perhaps soon New York State, have banned the retailing of puppy-mill offspring (although there’s genuine controversy about who’s a legitimate breeder).

Overall, it’s clear that we’ve turned a doggone corner. Tenderer loving care and feeding of pets, at considerable expense and even in households that have not prospered themselves, seem to have gone along with greater regard for abandoned animals’ welfare. This is manifested in very personal ways: Harris surveys consistently find better than 70 percent of owners sleeping with their dogs and a rising number — 45 percent by 2015— buying them birthday presents.

More substantively, Rowan and Kartal conclude, “campaigns to improve dog owner behavior in the last 40 years have created the changed dynamic we see between humans and dogs.”

There’s even evidence (from Portland, Ore.), Rowan tells me, that such reforms can curb dog bites. A three-year effort to modify owner practices there led to a drop in recidivism (second bite episode) from 25 percent to 7 percent. With Amazon and friends now clogging the USPS with home delivery packages, this may be karmic payoff for the modern letter carrier in Everywhere, USA.

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Is there a deeper meaning here — something about economics, perhaps (like the other articles in the Milken Review)? Well, there is at least a modest puzzle related to much of what’s called behavioral economics. How does seeming intractable behavior, like ignoring poop on the street or choosing to buy adorable pups over adopting decidedly care-worn mutts, get turned around so quickly? If we knew the answer, maybe we could stop folks from texting while driving, or saving enough in their 401(k)s to retire by age 75…

main topic: Policy & Regulation