It’s easy to paint the person surrendering a pet to the shelter as the bad guy.  After all, everyone knows that when you adopt an animal it’s a commitment for the rest of the animal’s life, right? What kind of terrible person would surrender their pet!?!  The hard truth is that for most pet owners surrendering their animals is heartbreaking. It’s the loss of not only their pet but the dream they had of what pet ownership was supposed to be like for them, an admission that they weren’t able to honor the commitment that they made to that animal, and the severing of a bond that can be stronger than many people realize.  There’s a reason why we keep tissues in all of the offices.

Sometimes the reason for a surrender is something the owner couldn’t foresee or even prevent.  Loss of a job and home, a disease like cancer or Alzheimer’s, or even death.  It’s even harder when the cause for the surrender is something preventable though, because in these cases it didn’t have to go that way.  Here are some of the preventable reasons that we see animals brought to the shelter and how to avoid them through preparation, research, and planning. The names are made up but the stories are all too common.

Unrealistic Expectations

Jamie had been thinking about getting a companion for a while and in January he decided that getting a dog was also the ticket to helping him meet his New Year’s resolutions.  For a long time he had wanted to lose that extra weight he was carrying around and start exercising but he had never really had the motivation to get off the couch. A dog would get him walking, then running, and soon he would be a thin, active, strong man with his trusty dog by his side. He went to a shelter in the beginning of January and adopted a young lab mix.  At first it went well, he took the dog out to walk every day.  However, within a couple of weeks he started to revert back to his more sedentary habits, coming home and spending the night inside watching TV. Without an outlet for her energy the lab began to become destructive and by April Jamie brought her back to the shelter with preventable excuse number 1: “I just don’t have time for what she needs.”

It’s OK that Jamie wanted a companion but what wasn’t OK here was that he wasn’t honest with himself about what type of owner he would be and he put an unrealistic expectation both on the pet and on himself.  If he had thought a bit more about who he was in the present and what sort of animal would be a good fit for his actual lifestyle, things might have gone differently.

A Bad Fit

When the Jones family was looking for a dog their 10 year old daughter had her heart set on a husky.  They’re beautiful and soft and she even had a name picked out, Sasha.  Not excited about the long vetting process they found with many breeders and anxious to get a puppy for their daughter the family researched online until they found a pet store with husky puppies.  They drove out there and picked out their puppy. They researched obedience classes and took a course at a local pet store.  They also researched different brands of puppy food to make sure that they chose a nutritious brand for Sasha.  In fact, the only thing they didn’t research was what it’s like to own a husky, something a reputable breeder would have helped them understand through that vetting process they didn’t want to deal with.  Husky’s are fantastic, a working breed known for being great with children.  They are also highly energetic, like to dig, and have strong prey drive.  With both parents working and only one walk a day Sasha quickly began to dig her way under the fence that enclosed the family’s back yard and go off on her own looking for adventure.  Neighbors calling the family to let them know she was wandering the neighborhood became common and when she went after one of those neighbor’s cats it was the last straw.  The family called the shelter and gave preventable reason number 2: “She’s just not a good fit for our family.”

Different dogs have different personalities and it’s vitally important to research the breed that you’re interested in before committing to an animal.  Border Collies?  Herders and super intelligent, if you don’t keep them active they turn destructive but tons of fun for an active family.  Cavaliers?  Medium energy dogs bred to be lap pets for the British aristocracy. Terrible guard dogs but excellent companions.  Hounds?  Bred to sniff out prey and howl when they get excited.  Wonderful pets if you don’t mind the noise they make.   Spend a lot of time researching the type of animal that fits your family and chances are that you’ll have a better experience.

Also, please don’t go to a pet store for your puppy! If you really want a purebred dog any good breeder will vet potential owners but that’s a sign of a responsible breeder and good for both you and the dog. Pet stores are bad for the puppies and the mama dogs.

Trouble With Other Animals In The Home

Emma came to the shelter looking for a companion animal for her 10 year old cat Jaden.  Her second cat had passed away from cancer earlier in the year and she felt that Jaden was lonely. Shelter staff matched her with Marble, a grey and white, 7 year old male.  Before taking him home the staff instructed Emma on how to introduce the two cats to each other.  “Take time to do it.” they said, “Keep Marble in a separate room for a few days so they can smell each other but not see each other.  Maybe next take Marble out and put your other cat in the room for an afternoon so that they can explore each other’s living area and smells better.  Introduce them to each other slowly and with lots of treats and playing.  Supervise their interactions at first and expect a little hissing, that’s normal, but patience is key to making it work.”

Emma was very excited when she got home with Marble.  She was anxious for the cats to make friends and get back to the dynamic she had when there were two cats.  Disregarding the staff’s instructions she put the carrier in the middle of the living room and opened the door….

10 days later she called the shelter back with preventable reason number three: It’s just not working with my other animal.  “It’s been awful,” she said, “I’ve tried to get them to be friends but Jaden is peeing everywhere and he and Marble have attacked each other.  I just can’t have Marble anymore.  I feel terrible but I need to bring him back.”

Shelter staff want to see the animals adopted stay in their forever homes, well, forever.  That’s why they take the time to talk with potential adopters and find the right fit, why they give detailed instruction for things like introducing animals to other pets, and why they stress any additional needs like a special diet or potential medical expenses. Communicating clearly with and listening to the staff can help you have the most successful adoption experience possible.

Behavior Problems

Jane was frustrated when she brought Max, a 10 month old boxer mix, into the shelter for surrender with preventable reason number four: behavior problems. “He scratches up my furniture, puts his paws on the counters and takes food, jumps on people, puts everything in his mouth.  I tell him no but he doesn’t listen.  I can’t take it anymore!”  During the intake Jane revealed that she meant to take Max to an obedience class sometime but had never gotten around to it.  She just figured that she’d say no and he would learn on his own. Now she was so frustrated that she just wanted to wash her hands of the whole dog ownership experience.

Unless you are an experienced dog owner (and maybe even if you are) obedience classes should be considered a mandatory part of having a dog.  Potential owners should budget the time an expense of even a basic 6 week course into their plan for adoption because in the long run it pays off or the whole life of the animal.


Even if we eliminated all of the preventable reasons that people have for surrendering a pet we would still take in more homeless animals than we would like.  Animals caught in the financial problems of their families, or pets whose owners are dealing with disease. These reasons alone are enough to fill our shelters with animals in need of new homes but with a little planning and honest evaluation we hope that families can avoid having to surrender animals for preventable reasons.


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