Dog Demand: Show Me the Numbers

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Americans want dogs now. But are there really enough to keep up with demand?

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt taken from the soon-to-be-released book “Pet Nation, – The Love Affair That Changed America,” by Mark Cushing.

For decades, we had all trusted the anecdotal evidence – myself, industry leaders, retailers, pet enthusiasts: “There are too many dogs in American shelters. Too many dogs are euthanized each year. Shelters mainly handle local strays. Breeders are producing breeds and volume of dogs we need.” The Pet Leadership Council directed us to do some research, and the data told a different story.


In early 2015, I enlisted the help of a veteran pollster, Bob Moore of Moore Information, and his analytics team in Portland, Oregon, to conduct a rigorous national phone survey of 1,500 households (the same sample size as a national presidential campaign poll). Their brief was to determine how many dogs were in American homes and where they came from. Once we knew these two chunks of data, by region, we could explore solutions. The study took nearly a year, but we got our numbers. They were a surprise.

How Many Dogs Does America Have?

The Moore data revealed that dog ownership was broadly distributed in the United States, by region, and by income. It also provided the first two pieces of the population puzzle: 1) the number of households with dogs, and 2) the number of dogs per household. Extrapolating this information to the number of U.S. households, in 2015, gave us a national estimate of 88 million dogs, generally more than the pet industry expected. Digging deeper into the survey, we learned that:

Nearly half of all households with dogs had more than one dog. Dogs are social creatures with a pack mentality and can suffer psychological damage if left home alone for long periods. In writing her book “The Hidden Life of Dogs,” anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas followed a pack of dogs around a neighborhood, studied them, and concluded that dogs who live in the company of other dogs “know they are understood” and are more “calm and pragmatic.” Of the 44% of American households with a dog, 26% had two dogs, 10% had three dogs, and 7% had four or more. Raising two dogs together from a young age is a good way to socialize them – not only in their behavior with other dogs but with people. This data supports the thesis that dogs can play a central role in family life and raise its overall level of happiness.

Red states have more dogs than blue states. The Northeast and the West Coast (both at 39%) lagged behind the rest of the country in dog ownership versus households in the Midwest (46%) and Rocky Mountain states (52%). Does the higher concentration of farms in the Midwest, which can accommodate dogs more easily than city apartments, distort the regional data? Do blue states skew cat because of urban density and the prevalence of apartments? Is there a correlation between pet ownership and the voting habits of Americans?

Dogs are not a luxury item only for high-income Americans. Income variation had relatively little effect on ownership, with the largest group – at 56% ownership – falling into the $50,000 to $99,000 income range, considered America’s middle class. It is logical that the explosion of dogs in Pet Nation is driven by the country’s largest demographic, but it’s worth noting that the lowest income group – earning less than $30,000 a year, at 43% ownership – is only three percentage points behind the highest income group (earning $100,000 plus a year), representing 46% ownership.

Knowing how many dogs we had in America, we could determine how many more we needed each year. Based on an average canine life span of eleven years (American Veterinary Medical Association longevity averages, including all breeds and sizes), we calculated that it would take approximately 8.3 million dogs to replenish the dog population each year, while factoring in the human population growth rate (since not all pet owners immediately replace their lost or deceased dog). This calculation led to two questions: 1) Does the supply of dogs from disparate sources add up to 8.3 million; and 2) where do our dogs come from?

Shelters And Canine Freedom Trains

From Moore Information data, we knew how many dogs we had (88 million), and we could calculate how many we needed (8.3 million annually). But we didn’t know what percentage of the 8.3 million target figure shelters could provide. If 50% or less, then we had to make some hard choices about the future of commercial breeding, the only scalable American-made solution. Ultimately, we need puppies. Some do end up in shelters, but where do we find the balance? If the supply is inadequate, do we counsel American pet owners that the only way to replace their favorite dog when she passes away is to pay a hefty premium for a new one?

To answer these questions, I traveled to Starkville, Mississippi, in the fall of 2015, in the heart of cotton country, the home of Mississippi State University. Though well-known for college baseball stars and raucous cowbells at SEC football games, Mississippi State is also a leading research university with a student body the same size as the town of 25,000. Mississippi State was founded in 1862 as a land-grant university for “agricultural, horticultural, and mechanical studies,” and “other scientific activities …” That was why I was visiting its excellent veterinary college. There, I met a talented pair of scientists, shelter veterinarian Kimberly Woodruff and epidemiologist David Smith.

The Mississippi State College of Veterinary Medicine has earned a national reputation in shelter medicine, a worthy field of study in a state whose rural communities are starved for resources.

Where Shelter Dogs Go

The Mississippi State shelter study discovered that during the year (2015):

  • 5.5 million dogs entered shelters.
  • 2.6 million dogs were adopted.
  • 970,000 dogs were returned to owners.
  • 778,000 dogs were transferred to other shelters or rescue groups.
  • 777,000 dogs were euthanized.

Professors Woodruff and Smith presented their analysis at the North American Veterinary Community conference in Orlando, Florida, on February 7, 2017. The next day, this research became national news – the Washington Post ran a lead story with the headline: “Does America Have Enough Dogs for All the People Who Want One?” For the first time ever, the mainstream media had covered this issue, and it drew attention from policymakers to industry experts to existing and would-be pet owners.

For years, internal pressures had routinely forced shelters to euthanize dogs to make room for the next pack. Budget, staff, and space limitations were the constricting factors. Some no-kill shelters never euthanize, even when dogs are too sick or behaviorally challenged to be adopted. However, those shelters are the minority, and they usually limit their dog intake or have more space than many nonprofit shelters. Once the dog-loving public learned about adoption alternatives, particularly in Northern metropolitan markets, the situation began to change. As supply caught up with demand, euthanasia rates declined.

Though 10 million dogs were euthanized annually in the 80s and 90s, we euthanized only 777,000 in 2015 and transferred approximately that same number to other shelters or rescues. This wholesale shift is still difficult for many people and animal advocates to believe, but our spay-and-neuter campaigns have been wildly effective. Perhaps too effective.

Americans now face a dilemma we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago when three of every four dogs in shelters were put down each year because no one adopted them and shelters ran out of space or resources. Though Americans need 8.3 million dogs each year, shelters can only supply 2.6 million. Americans want dogs now, and Pet Nation has a dog shortage to address.

Mark Cushing is the founding partner and CEO of the Animal Policy Group and a Stanford honors graduate. He acts as Trustees Counsel for Lincoln Memorial University and has served as adjunct faculty and lecturer at Lincoln Memorial University, Lewis & Clark College, and the University of Oregon law school.

Photo credit: istockphoto.com/hedgehog94

Cover of the book Pet Nation

About the book

An inside look at the forces behind how our pets become treasured members of the family.

In the last 20 years pets have gone from the backyard to sleeping on our beds, then showing up in every corner of America. Pet Nation tells the story of this seismic shift and the economic, media, legal, political, and social dramas springing from this cultural transformation.

Since 1998 the pet population in the U.S. has almost doubled – about two-thirds of the country now owns a pet. No longer left to wander the neighborhood, dogs, and cats eat special food, get individualized medical attention, and even fly in the cabin. As the founder of the Animal Policy Group, Mark Cushing provides an inside look at the rise of Pet Nation, tracking the myriad ways pets are acquired (a “Canine Freedom Train” runs south to north), reporting on pet rights legislation (and the unseen problems that come with elevating their status), pet healthcare (revealing the truth and myths about large scale breeders), and discovering that despite what many organizations would have us believe, there is a shortage of dogs.

Insightful, surprising, and full of great stories, Pet Nation opens our eyes to the big changes happening in front of us right now. It shows us not only what our love of animals says about pets, it shows us what it says about ourselves.

“Pet Nation – The Love Affair That Changed America,” is set to release September 8, 2020. To pre-order your copy, visit amazon.com/Pet-Nation-Affair-Changed-America/dp/0593083865.

Excerpted from Pet Nation by Mark Cushing with permission of Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Mark Cushing, 2020.

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