Want to Help Animals? Focus on supporting local shelters and facilities

Originally appeared in the print edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Over the past three years, American spending habits have been flipped upside down as inflation hit levels unseen since Jimmy Carter. Although the pace of price increases is now moderating, the fallout is far from over. It’s impacting everything from how often families dine-out to, yes, homeless cats and dogs. Frontline pet shelters need more support to navigate this post-pandemic crisis.

Compared to February 2020, the cost of having and caring for a pet in the U.S. has jumped by more than 20 percent. And as the price tag of household necessities like groceries or medicine have gone to the moon, Americans—being squeezed from both sides—are forced to make tough financial decisions.

In some cases, dogs and cats are budget items that sadly get the boot, or adoption considerations take a backseat to begin with. Recent polling finds 43 percent of pet owners are concerned about their ability to financially support their four-legged family members, a figure that jumps to 50 and 60 percent for members of the Millennial and Gen Z generations respectively.

As the number of families with the financial means to adopt homeless cats and dogs shrinks, fewer animals find forever homes. In fact, according to the Shelter Animals Count national database, more than 100,000 fewer dog adoptions were completed last year compared to 2019. And over the past three years, nearly one million animals have entered the country’s pet shelters without coming out—a surplus that is resulting in a capacity crisis.

What can be done about it?

Animal lovers that do have the means to financially support homeless pets should contribute to neighborhood SPCAs, humane societies, or animal rescues rather than giving to large, national organizations. These are the facilities that do the most good for homeless pets. Volunteers house, care for, and attempt to find forever homes for the animals.

National organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States, for example, focus on other priorities. Despite their advertising featuring suffering cats and dogs, the organizations are not affiliated with community shelters. And in some cases, the large-scale advertising of these national groups in local markets like Sarasota proverbially hijack money that could have gone to community shelters.

According to a new report released by the Center for the Environment and Welfare, the Humane Society of the United States and ASPCA give just one and two percent of their respective budgets to local pet shelters as financial grants. The lack of meaningful support is particularly puzzling given the organizations have combined annual budgets of more than half a billion dollars.

Americans across the country are feeling an economic squeeze—financial hardship that is contributing to overburdened pet shelters. Animal lovers should ensure donations are effectively helping homeless cats and dogs in their communities. Local pet shelters need to be thrown a bigger bone.

Edwin Sayres is the former President and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and now lives in Sarasota. He is currently a senior advisor to the Center for the Environment and Welfare