Background: The population of dogs and cats passing through rescue shelters may be subject to compromised welfare and increased susceptibility to disease. Little information exists to describe this population, its dynamics and associated management practices. The aim of this study was to carry out a census of un-owned cats and dogs in the UK in 2010, and to document the origins, destinations, husbandry and costs associated with the care of these animals.
Results: A sampling frame was constructed by searching the databases of publicly registered charities for England, Scotland and Wales, registers of breed rescues, and by internet searches of animal welfare websites. Overall, 2,352 contacts for 1,380 organisations were identified. All were sent a postal questionnaire asking for data on the number of dogs and cats housed, their origins and eventual outcomes, and details of husbandry between January 1st and December 31st 2010. For those which were registered charities (595), financial records were also obtained.A response rate of 38.8% was obtained. Overall, in 2010, 89,571 dogs and 156,826 cats entered the care of the participating organisations. Approximately half of these animals were relinquished by their owners. Other origins included being found as strays or confiscated for welfare purposes. Seventy-five per cent of dogs and 77.1% of cats were rehomed. The next most common outcome was euthanasia, accounting for 10.4% of dogs and 13.2% cats. For dogs and cats, 44.3% and 62% of participants respectively reported having a waiting list, which frequently exceeded the actual capacity of the facility. Over 19,000 people were involved in the care of these animals, on a paid or voluntary basis. Financial records were available for 519/595 (87.2%) of the registered charities, and their total expenditure in 2010 was £340 million.
Conclusions: This study showed that a large number of animals become un-owned each year, which could have considerable implications for their welfare. Despite the resources expended, demand still exceeds capacity for many organisations, and a substantial number of both cats and dogs are euthanased, suggesting that further understanding of how and why these animals become un-owned is essential in order to target interventions.