I’ve been an animal shelter volunteer for more than 10 years. A lot of strays come in the door, but the animals who really touch me are the ones they call the “owner surrenders.” These are the animals who had a home and lost it, and over the years I’ve tried to understand why people abandon their animal companions.

I remember one handsome, friendly black-and-white tuxedo cat who was dropped off at the shelter a while ago. We had lots of other cats available, and the tuxedo cat wasn’t adopted quickly. He handled his new world very well at first, but as the weeks turned into months, he became irritable and unhappy. Eventually the shelter staff made the difficult but humane decision to end his suffering by euthanizing him. He was just 5 years old, and I wondered for weeks afterward if anything could have prevented his abandonment.

Sometimes people surrender animals because they think it’s the only possible solution. Perhaps someone with a severe cat allergy joins the household, and the family doesn’t realize that these allergies can often be treated or managed. Sometimes people are separated from their animal companions because they become too sick to care for them. Many people don’t know about the importance of advance planning for their animal family, and so their animal companions end up in the shelter. Saddest of all is when people die without having made arrangements for their companions. Often these animals are elderly and don’t adapt well to the shelter environment. Some of them never make it out of the shelter—they are scared or unfriendly, and potential adopters pass them by.

Moving is a frequently given reason for surrender. The paperwork for each animal tells the story:

“Moving out of state and cannot take cat.”

“New landlord does not allow dogs.”

“Found cat in apartment next door after neighbor moved out.”

“No space in new home for dog.” 

But all too often the move is just an excuse. One study showed that more than half of the people surrendering animals because of moving also report behavior problems. In other words, the move often isn’t the real issue.

Behavioral problems are the most common reason why people give up their dogs, and they are the second most common reason for cats. Behavioral problems can be very serious, like biting or aggression in dogs. But more often they are common dog and cat issues like inappropriate elimination, destructiveness, barking or meowing, or not getting along with other animals in the home. Sometimes the problem is one of inappropriate expectations: “Cat isn’t friendly enough,” or “Dog needs too much attention.” Most behavioral issues can be corrected, but people may lack the knowledge or commitment needed to do the work.

People surrendering an animal with behavior issues don’t want to hurt their animal’s chances of adoption from the shelter, so they may mislead shelter staff and explain the surrender as due to allergies or a move. This makes it even harder for the shelter to find that animal a suitable home. Or the animal might be adopted, only to be returned by the new guardian as soon as the problem behavior starts.

I’ve come to believe that one of the most important jobs of an animal shelter is to reduce the number of abandonments through outreach and education. Many animal shelters now have printed information on coping with the most common behavioral problems, and some even provide telephone hotlines to help people work through issues. Shelters can help to educate adopters about the commitment involved in being an animal caregiver. It’s also important for anyone thinking about adopting an animal to consider in advance how they will deal with potential issues, so that they don’t end up adding to the numbers of abandoned animals.

Do you know anyone who has given up an animal? Let me know in the comments what happened—and whether there might have been any way to prevent it.