Joyce Briggs is president of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs, which advances nonsurgical sterilants to increase access to humane fertility control. As executive director of PetSmart Charities, she championed high-volume, high-quality spay-neuter clinic models and introduced the Rescue Wagon program, one of the first initiatives that transported dogs and cats from overpopulated regions to locations with high demand for rescue dogs. Briggs is co-founder of the Animal Shelter Alliance in Portland, Oregon, serves as an adviser to 911 Foster Pets, and is on the board of the Functional Dog Collaborative. She has a master's degree from Northwestern University.
The opinions expressed in this article are Briggs' own and not necessarily those of the organizations with which she is affiliated.
I have been passionate about spay-neuter programs since I began volunteering in animal welfare in the 1970s. Back then, and for many years after, we were in an emergency, providing damage control for an out-of-control population of dogs and cats. As a result, we viewed nearly any breeding as putting a shelter animal's life at risk.
Today things have changed dramatically, with shortages of dogs for people wishing to adopt in many regions of the country, including the Pacific Northwest, where I live. Here in Portland, we have saved over 90% of all dogs in our shelters since 2010 and over 95% since 2014. According to Best Friends Animal Society data, the national average shelter save rate is nearing 90%.
We've made so much progress in controlling overpopulation that we've reached a point where animal welfare and veterinary leaders need to step back and consider how people should obtain pets when a shelter dog isn't available or suitable for their family.
In this article I'd like to focus specifically on dogs, even though there are similar trends occurring with cats, albeit in far fewer locations. Dogs are where the conversation is happening right now, so it's important to think about where the dogs that make great family pets are going to originate.
Examining the dog population
The American Veterinary Medical Association's most recent estimate is that the U.S. dog population was about 85 million in 2020.1 With an average lifespan of 11 years, 9% of dogs pass away each year. That means that in order to sustain the same number of dogs, we need up to 8 million new dogs every year. Those new dogs can be puppies that are born or dogs of any age brought in from other countries.
Right now no one really knows where puppies in the U.S. are coming from. Based on data from Shelter Animals Count and Best Friends, we can estimate that in 2019 — which is a better point of reference than more recent years when COVID's impact has reduced dogs coming through shelters — about 1.3 million dogs were adopted from shelters. Of those, about a quarter, or 320,000, were puppies. That's not many compared to 8 million.
We also know that a large but unknown quantity of dogs is rehomed every year. Rehoming is very important, and it's part of the safety net shelters provide, but it's not part of replenishing the total dog population. You can't apply most shelter-adopted dogs to the number of replacement dogs needed, because they're already part of the existing population.
So if shelters are providing only a fraction of the new dogs needed to sustain the U.S. population, where are the rest coming from? Or, more to the point for our purposes here, where should they come from?
What we want for dogs — and what we don't
I propose that the animal welfare and veterinary communities need to pay attention to how dogs are created to join families, then help shape and direct that process. This is an urgent situation. A market poised to fill the gap of adoptable dogs is an opportunity for puppy mills and other unethical, inhumane ways of creating and raising dogs to emerge. We need an alternative.
Yes, we need to continue providing a safety net for dogs coming into shelters, encourage adoption and transport dogs around the country as needed to find homes. And the vast majority of dogs should still be sterilized. But we also need leaders with a strong animal welfare ethic to come together to envision how breeding can be done in a humane and ethical way at a scale that meets a reasonable level of demand. It is not either/or but both.
Kennel-based commercial breeders may be needed. I applaud programs like Purdue's Canine Care Certified, with voluntary research-based standards envisioned to be met within a kennel environment. I hope far more kennels adopt their standards.
But I also encourage animal welfare leaders and veterinary experts to step back and ask how it should work. What would we wish for dogs coming into this world? I would assert the following:
- We need a sustainable, scalable model where puppies' parents can live the life of a family pet.
- We want puppies to have the benefit of strong early socialization.
- Parents' and puppies' genetics should contribute to living long, healthy lives.
- We want dogs to remain accessible for families.
And, more broadly, we need a way to measure and monitor the system to prevent an oversupply that leads to any euthanasia of excess dogs.
Where to start
If we take this idea seriously, we first need to understand where today's puppies are coming from. Our data on this is poor, which means we don't understand the current market supply, the journey of how people are becoming new pet owners and what is working or not.
Next, we need to reinvent models for breeding pet dogs. I volunteer with the nonprofit Functional Dog Collaborative, founded in 2020, whose mission is to support the breeding of physically and behaviorally healthy dogs. This is dramatically different than, say, breeding the healthiest Doberman or French bulldog possible. There is no other organization providing support for people intentionally breeding mixed-breed dogs; in fact it is often stigmatized.
Like many others who may be reading this article, I was fortunate to grow up with several healthy "Heinz 57" dogs. They lived long lives and were friendly with people and dogs alike. These days, the only mixed-breed dogs we see are born accidentally, and as more communities embrace the spay-neuter ethic, there are fewer and fewer accidental births. I fear this means we may lose the Great American Mutt.
"These days, the only mixed-breed dogs we see are born accidentally, and as more communities embrace the spay-neuter ethic, there are fewer and fewer accidental births. I fear this means we may lose the Great American Mutt."
I have worked extremely hard in my career to normalize pediatric spaying and neutering. However, at times it makes sense to say, "Wow, the parents of this puppy were great family dogs — maybe we should wait a couple of years and see if she could have a litter or two with a well-selected mate before she's sterilized." That is simply not possible if we sterilize at the earliest mark. Veterinarians are particularly well-positioned to have these conversations and to help mentor clients who opt to bring new puppies into the community.
Bottom line? As we close the doors on unethical ways of breeding dogs, we need to consider opening others to provide enough of the kinds of dogs sought by families.
Dogs deserve better
Shelters and veterinarians can start by figuring out how many replacement dogs their community needs based on the number of dogs and families. That analysis will reveal whether there's overpopulation or an open gap for puppy mills to step in.
Shelters that aren't able to provide enough new pets for the community may want to dial down their "adopt don't shop" messaging and stop stigmatizing people who go to breeders. Veterinarians and shelters can investigate breeders for referrals. If a family has their heart set on a small fluffy puppy that will never show up in a shelter, there should be resources in the community to help them make a responsible choice on their journey to find it elsewhere.
Veterinarians and animal welfare leaders can also reach out to ask who in their community might have intact, healthy, well-dispositioned family dogs that could provide a litter or two. Instead of stigmatizing these families for having intact dogs, they can provide mentorship on the breeding journey. They can help families make good decisions about a mate for their dog, get puppies socialized for family life, and make sure puppies are vaccinated and healthy before going into new homes.
"If a family has their heart set on a small fluffy puppy that will never show up in a shelter, there should be resources in the community to help them make a responsible choice on their journey to find it elsewhere."
A model to consider
Guide Dogs for the Blind provides an interesting model. The dogs they select to create the next generation of service dog puppies live in a home their whole life. The family is on a contract with Guide Dogs for a certain number of litters, and the dog goes back to the organization's headquarters when she whelps to make sure there's 24-hour veterinary surveillance and the puppies get everything they need. Then the mother dog goes back to live with her family. She retires by age 6 at the latest and lives out her life in the only home she's known.
If I ask myself how it ought to work for dogs that are breeding family pets, it seems clear that they should ideally be successful family pets themselves. I'd vote that they receive wonderful care throughout pregnancy and whelping. I would also want any dog getting its start in life to be part of a planned litter with a home eager to embrace it, to be raised meeting small children and big men, and to experience light thunderstorm noises while sleeping so it has less chance of developing storm anxiety later in life.
Another model to think about is the foster network. Many shelters and veterinarians already manage and support these networks in their communities. Within a similar "breeding cooperative" structure (which the Functional Dog Cooperative is already laying the groundwork for), shelters could oversee programs that help socialize puppies during the critical eight-week window. Veterinarians and skilled volunteers could mentor and coach families who contribute litters to the community. In fact, animal welfare and veterinary groups could create a whole new system of ethical breeding — a system that's sorely needed to prevent what might otherwise emerge, whether puppy mills or the international production of dogs that ship here under the guise of rescue. I would like to see people with our values and concern for the health and well-being of family pets design our path to dog guardianship in the future.
The path forward
I realize it might be difficult for those immersed in overpopulation to catch hold of this vision in this very moment. But it's important for the conversation to continue to unfold at national and regional levels so that we get in front of this. In areas where we can start changing how dogs come into this world, we set the stage for other communities currently dealing with overpopulation; trends show that shelter dog shortages could be ahead for them as well. The more we can chart the journey forward in the ethical and humane creation of new puppies, the better off families, communities and dogs themselves will be.
- "Pet Populations Are On the Way Up," AVMA@Work Blog, American Veterinary Medical Association, December 10, 2020.