stigma affecting shelter and stray pets

By Jo Gale, Global Science Communications Director, Mars Petcare

As I scroll through social media, another picture of a cat or puppy pops up as friends share stories of their pets’ latest tricks and triumphs. My own social posts are often of my dogs looking cute or doing funny things. These pets, in loving homes with owners who adore them, not only have the potential to become minor social media stars but usually receive good nutrition, veterinary care, and training which sets them up for a healthy and contented life. It can therefore be hard to comprehend that millions of cats and dogs around the world are not in homes, not being fed well, or getting the care they need. Cats and dogs can become lost or stray from their homes, and some have lived their whole lives on the streets. These pets often lack any sustained human care or attention. Pets in shelters may be fed and cared for but need a one-to-one bond with a loving owner or family.

That makes our Mars Petcare ambition to end pet homelessness a daunting and ambitious one. There’s no quick fix to solve the problem, and the reasons why pets become or remain, homeless are complex and varied.

We also know we can’t do this alone. We need others with expertise and experience in pet welfare to join us in making pet homelessness a thing of the past. And so we’ve proudly partnered with experts from international organisations who have helped us take an important step towards achieving our goal, by creating the State of Pet Homelessness Index.

The index is the first of its kind tool to measure the size and scale of the pet homelessness problem in each country and identify the main challenges and successes in trying to address it. Using existing data on the underlying elements impacting pet homelessness and gathering new data on people’s understanding of and attitudes to homeless pets, the index calculates a score for each country from 0-10 (and a score for each of the three key focus areas which make pets vulnerable to homelessness).

Despite our best intentions, the stigma remains

Gathering data for the index highlighted some interesting insights. Across all the 9 countries surveyed so far, 4 out of 5 people wished that all homeless cats and dogs could find a home, and more than 3 out of 5 have tried to help stray pets by giving them food, water, or care. Most people interviewed would like pets to be sheltered.

But when it comes to adopting a shelter pet, over a third would not consider adopting due to reasons ranging from perceived lack of availability of certain breeds or type of pet to concerns about these pets’ emotional damage due to their background.

State of Pet Homelessness stray pets stigma
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Those who share their lives with an ex-stray or shelter pet will know that this isn’t always the case, and mythbusting to overcome these stigmas and stereotypes Opens a new window could be powerful in helping to overcome some of the barriers to pet adoption. In many cases, the reason why owners relinquish their pets is their inability to care for them any longer, which means perfectly healthy pets find themselves in shelters waiting for a new family.

To future pet parents out there still deciding whether to adopt a rescue pet, here are a few tips to help you make that decision:

  • Do your research and find out what breed – or breed mix – best fits your/your family’s lifestyle
  • Already at the local shelter? Find out the pet’s story. Ask the caretakers all your questions about the cat or dog’s past life and current behavior. Many are relinquished with their history information and spend time with volunteers at the shelter.
  • Be mindful of the stigma and remember that not all shelter pets are traumatized or have behavior issues. Many will make perfect lifelong companions.

As we continue to gather data in more countries to expand the index and better understand key issues driving pet homelessness around the world, it’s clear we have a long way to go – and raising awareness of the impact stigma can have is one effort we’re committed to, together with organizations and pet parents around the world We’re determined to make a difference to homeless pets and the State of Pet Homelessness Index gives us a great tool to track our journey along the way.