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The dog shortage: How spay-neuter has led to empty shelters


Animal welfare campaigns have been so successful that many communities have no adoptable dogs. We can solve this dilemma with humane breeding.Mark Cushing, JDJanuary 2022
The dog shortage: How spay-neuter has led to empty shelters

Mark Cushing, JD

Mark Cushing is founder and CEO of the Animal Policy Group and author of Pet Nation: The Inside Story of How Companion Animals Are Transforming Our Homes, Culture and Economy, which tells the story of the economic, legal, political and social dramas springing from this cultural transformation. Cushing is a longtime political strategist, government regulatory adviser and corporate executive who has specialized in animal health issues since 2004. He also has served as an adjunct faculty member at Lincoln Memorial, Lewis & Clark, and University of Oregon law schools and is trustees counsel at Lincoln Memorial University.


Seven or eight years ago, when I was a few years into my work as a strategist for the animal health profession, I was talking with a senior animal welfare executive at an industry event. I had been studying the dynamics of the industry, and I mentioned that it wasn't clear to me — or, it seemed, to anyone — where dogs were coming from or even how many were needed for everyone who wanted one. "I don't know if we have too many, too few, or just the right number of dogs," I said.

"Oh, we're heading toward a shortage," he replied. "In fact we're probably there now."

To say I was surprised at this admission is an understatement. After all, the commercials running on evening television at the time clearly suggested otherwise. When I mentioned this to the executive, along with an oblique reference to the amount of money those commercials must raise, he just laughed, and we left it at that.

Diving into data

Since that exchange I have delved much more deeply into this issue. On behalf of the Pet Leadership Council, an advocacy group made up of pet industry, animal welfare, veterinary and academic leaders, I helped organize a rigorous study by a professional survey research organization to determine how many dogs were in the United States. We found that in 2015 there were around 90 million dogs — more than anyone had thought. And if dogs live 11.2 years on average, that means we need about 8.3 million dogs every year to replace those we've lost.

Our next question was, OK, where do those 8.3 million dogs come from? A 2017 study by veterinary researchers at Mississippi State University, home of the premier shelter medicine program in the United States, told us that animal shelters adopt out 2.6 million dogs every year.1 Other sources indicate that breeders and the internet provide another 3.4 million dogs. But that still left a 2.3-million-dog gap we couldn't account for.

I had a theory that at least part of this gap was being addressed through dogs coming into the U.S. from other countries. And in 2019 the Centers for Disease Control reported that roughly 1.1 million dogs enter the U.S. every year, less than 3% with medical records of any sort.2 That would account for about half of the gap we had identified. Some of the rest likely come from backyard breeders and other unknown sources.

"People are finally talking about a dog shortage. Really, we shouldn't be surprised that we've reached this point — after all, we spay and neuter pretty much every dog, ..."

But we are still short of dogs. And there is growing awareness of this scarcity. After the Mississippi State study was presented, the Washington Post ran a story on the front page headlined, "Does America have enough dogs for all the people who want one?" All of the sudden this was big news, with other media outlets conducting their own investigations (see here and here). My chapter on the subject in Pet Nation, titled "Dog Shortages and Canine Freedom Trains," has generated more discussion than anything else in the book.

People are finally talking about a dog shortage. Really, we shouldn't be surprised that we've reached this point — after all, we spay and neuter pretty much every dog, and most shelters adopt dogs out soon after receiving them. But the idea of a dog shortage makes many people extremely uncomfortable. Why? Because it invokes two very ugly words: puppy mills.

Bracing for impact

When I first took my findings public, I waited for animal rights groups to come flying out of their offices attacking me, saying I was promoting puppy mills. I didn't represent any breeders, so I wasn't making that case. But it stands to reason that if you have a shortage of dogs, you need to create more dogs, and the way you do that is through breeding.

In the animal welfare world, the idea of breeding is anathema — at least it has been for a very long time. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) didn't invent the phrase "puppy mill," but in the early 2000s they grabbed it and ran. It's a brilliant epithet. "Puppy mill" — you just say the words, and the images that come to mind are horrific: a hundred dogs in squalor, living in crates upon crates on some remote farm with no veterinarian within a hundred miles, where disease is rampant and it's basically a Gulag.

Those facilities do exist, and to its credit, HSUS helped get many of them shut down and cleaned up. But the phrase "puppy mill" raises a lot of funds, and animal welfare groups know what sells. Other humane issues, such as confinement of farm animals, don't hold a candle to the specter of the puppy mill when it comes to opening pockets. So puppy mill campaigns remain relentless and spare no breeders.

Yes, there are bad breeders in America. There are also bad lawyers, bad dentists and bad writers. But the notion that all breeders are bad? I don't accept that.

An alternative: Humane breeding

It takes two dogs who can produce a puppy to make a puppy, but today's dog population doesn't have that capacity because of the way we routinely spay and neuter. This philosophy derives from a decades-old scenario in which drastic measures were necessary to address overpopulation and senseless euthanasia. While welfare networks have made tremendous progress in these areas, there has been little discussion of putting on the brakes with spay-neuter.

Which brings us to where we are today. The solution to our current shortage, as I see it, is hobby and large-scale breeding carried out under meticulously applied humane guidelines. Some animal rights groups may insist that this is not possible, but it is — and it's what makes sense. Candace Croney, PhD, has developed rigorous standards for the breeding of pets and pioneered the Canine Care Certified program at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. If everyone played by her book, there wouldn't be an unhealthy pet bred in America.

In fact, breeders of pet dogs can apply the same approach used by the coffee industry 20 years ago, when it began promoting fair trade coffee in response to concerns about environmental and labor conditions in parts of the world that produce coffee beans. Breeding operations that adopt Purdue's Canine Care Certified standards will instill confidence in consumers and activists that the parent dogs and puppies in their care are healthy and well-cared-for.

Eventually breeders of all stripes will have to get on board with humane breeding because consumers will demand it. Small hobby breeders will have to abide by the same rules as large operations. Ideally 4-H groups and land grant universities, with their expertise in animal breeding, will help support the effort, and community networks will develop around humane breeding. And eventually pet dogs will be accessible again.

The veterinarian's role

The veterinary profession has mostly been on the sidelines in this conversation, not wanting to touch such a politically explosive issue. However, Dr. Croney's work at Purdue has been conducted under the umbrella of academic veterinary science, and veterinarians should support that work. Veterinarians should be leading the cause for humane breeding, not to create jobs for themselves or breeders, but because it's the right thing to do. It's similar to how human medicine promotes child health — not to keep pediatricians busy and successful, but because it's built into the ethic of the profession.

On the other hand, if the shortage continues to drive prices skyward (a goldendoodle in the western U.S. today can sell for around $4,500), veterinary medicine will become a luxury profession, not an "every man and woman's best friend" profession.

"[If] the shortage continues to drive prices skyward (a goldendoodle in the western U.S. today can sell for around $4,500), veterinary medicine will become a luxury profession, ..."

If nothing else, I think a veterinarian who's associated with this effort might enjoy having an answer for the client who says, "Our dog's 14 and we don't know where we're going to get another. Is there somebody breeding retrievers in the area we could trust?" Right now, it is extremely difficult to answer the question of where to go to get a healthy and humanely bred dog.

Attitudes are changing

These days I'm part of conversations joining animal welfare groups, breeders and industry representative at the same table — people who ordinarily don't get near each other! But they are finally coming to the table. Recently we had one conversation with no goal other than to see if we wouldn't have a fistfight. And we all got along. We are slowly starting to make progress, and we might just figure this out.

There's room for everybody at the table who agrees there's a shortage of dogs and we have an obligation to prevent pets from becoming luxury items available only to the elite. Right now we've got a serious shortage of dogs at a time when millennials can't get enough pets. If we can alleviate the shortage with humane breeding, the benefits and successes of Pet Nation will only grow.

  1. "Research offers new estimates for shelter dog population," JAVMA News, American Veterinary Medical Association, March 29, 2017.
  2. Centers for Disease Control, "Guidance Regarding Agency Interpretation of 'Rabies-Free' as It Relates to the Importation of Dogs into the United States," Federal Register, National Archives, January 31, 2019.

4 comments


  • I 100% agree with the shortage! I actually spent 5 years looking for a ,“Bred With Heart,” Cavalier King Charles Spaniel through the AKC. Cavaliers have a genetic predisposition to Mitral Valve disease (MVD), and to me it was important to find a breeder who was not USDA certified and someone who put the money out for the OFA certificates along with the genetic screenings that can tell you what the dog will likely succumb to in old age and breeders have those done to determine whether it is ethical to breed the dog if they have a orthopedic condition such as hip dysplasia. Pedigree papers may mean a lot to some I have those too, but the OFA clearances and genetic screenings on the parents prior to breeding is what separates a ethical breeder from a puppy mill or backyard breeder and meant more to me after I had two golden retrievers succumb to cancer. I winded up finding a nice woman who works as a registered nurse and raises puppies INSIDE of her home. I was shocked by how much I paid given the money she put out on the prebreeding screenings on both the parents since the full OFA clearances recommended for each breed can cost up to $5,000-$10,000. My breeder breeds her spaniels because she fell in love with the breed and is trying to weed out the genetic issues. My dog is 5 years old now and is healthy as can be and I will always go to a private breeder only because you’re investing in a life and a dog should be bred the right way and there are protocols in place with the AKC who wants a dog that has a gene for heart disease in their bloodline. I’m very close with my breeder and I hope to participate in that as well once I get my nursing career established because I gave up the idea of getting married and having kids of my own to try to weed out some of these health issues that shelters have no knowledge in doing. Genetic disease and susceptibility as well as temperament are aspects that a knowledgeable breeder can improve and the dogs that need homes are nice for someone for who is a beginner but when you own a purebred and lose them to a genetic disease you get biased and try to make a difference so someone won’t go through the pain of letting their furbaby go. Those that do it the right way the ethical way there is not much of an incentive to it you do it because you love the breed and I’m so fedup with seeing some of these comments. Once I met my current breeder I saw someone I could personally relate to she’s an advocate for the Cavalier and has been doing it for 35 years and never gives her retired dogs away either.

    Jillian Logue on

  • I 100% agree with the shortage! I actually spent 5 years looking for a ,“Bred With Heart,” Cavalier King Charles Spaniel through the AKC. Cavaliers have a genetic predisposition to Mitral Valve disease (MVD), and to me it was important to find a breeder who was not USDA certified and someone who put the money out for the OFA certificates along with the genetic screenings that can tell you what the dog will likely succumb to in old age and breeders have those done to determine whether it is ethical to breed the dog if they have a orthopedic condition such as hip dysplasia. Pedigree papers may mean a lot to some I have those too, but the OFA clearances and genetic screenings on the parents prior to breeding is what separates a ethical breeder from a puppy mill or backyard breeder and meant more to me after I had two golden retrievers succumb to cancer. I winded up finding a nice woman who works as a registered nurse and raises puppies INSIDE of her home. I was shocked by how much I paid given the money she put out on the prebreeding screenings on both the parents since the full OFA clearances recommended for each breed can cost up to $5,000-$10,000. My breeder breeds her spaniels because she fell in love with the breed and is trying to weed out the genetic issues. My dog is 5 years old now and is healthy as can be and I will always go to a private breeder only because you’re investing in a life and a dog should be bred the right way and there are protocols in place with the AKC who wants a dog that has a gene for heart disease in their bloodline. I’m very close with my breeder and I hope to participate in that as well once I get my nursing career established because I gave up the idea of getting married and having kids of my own to try to weed out some of these health issues that shelters have no knowledge in doing. Genetic disease and susceptibility as well as temperament are aspects that a knowledgeable breeder can improve and the dogs that need homes are nice for someone for who is a beginner but when you own a purebred and lose them to a genetic disease you get biased and try to make a difference so someone won’t go through the pain of letting their furbaby go. Those that do it the right way the ethical way there is not much of an incentive to it you do it because you love the breed and I’m so fedup with seeing some of these comments. Once I met my current breeder I saw someone I could personally relate to she’s an advocate for the Cavalier and has been doing it for 35 years and never gives her retired dogs away either.

    Jillian Logue on

  • Instead of advocating breeding, perhaps transporting unwanted pets from areas with high numbers of strays to places where dogs are in short supply is the answer. I think you are misguided about the majority of dog breeders. 90% of them are breeding dogs to make money and, in no breed is this more evident then the French Bulldog. Although testing for genetic defects is available breeders are not testing their animals. I am seeing record numbers of frenchies with genetic defects associated with bad breeding. These defects are more prevalent in the non standard colors that have been popping up. Lastly, how much of this perceived shortage is due to the pandemic? Many people adopted pets out of boredom. As these people go back to work, how many of these pets will be taken to shelters because the owners are too “busy”? In other countries this is already a reality.

    Carol Adams on

  • Every year there are still over a million dogs being euthanized in shelters . Does not sound like a shortage to me. Many city shelters are still overwhelmed bey the numbers of animals that come through their doors every week. In a perfect world shelters would be empty and only “humane breeders” would breed and everyone could order the breed and sex they want, but this is not a perfect world. GET REAL!!!!

    Patricia S Dowell on

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