2020 Shelter Data: Florida shelters saved nearly 9 out of every 10 animals they took in

We’re frequently asked, “How many cats and dogs are admitted to shelters each year and what happens to them?” To answer this question, the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF periodically conducts a statewide census of animals that pass through more than 150 animal shelters across Florida. Here’s what we found in our most recent survey.

Florida reached a new lifesaving record in 2020. They collectively saved nearly nine out of every 10 animals they took in throughout the year. That’s a jump from 81 percent in 2019 and 54 percent since we first began collecting shelter data in 2013.

2020 Total Live Release Rate Bar Chart by Year and separated by Species, dog or cat, showing a steady rise in live release.

This improvement happened against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had an unprecedented impact — both positive and negative — on animal shelter operations across the country. Stay-at-home orders caused shelters to focus on essential services like picking up inured animals, investigating animal cruelty, and protecting public safety. Other traditional services such as taking in animals from the public, picking up free-roaming community cats, housing healthy animals, and operating spay/neuter clinics were deemed nonessential and were put on hold. Many shelters are still operating at a lower capacity, with staffing shortages, limited visitors, and curbside services.

“A positive outcome of the pandemic shutdown was the acceleration of programs designed to help families keep their pets,” said Dr. Julie Levy, Fran Marino Professor of Shelter Medicine Education and lead researcher. “Instead of making pet relinquishment the default process for struggling families, shelters are now providing interventions such as veterinary care, behavioral resources, pet food banks, and emergency boarding. This reimagination of the role of shelters in supporting their communities and Florida’s strong gains in lifesaving are advancements that we are all hoping to hang onto as the new normal.“

Dr. Levy attributes some of the positive changes to the work of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, which provides pro bono consultation services to Florida shelters throughout the year. Expert faculty and veterinary students visit shelters to provide a new perspective and insight on how best practices and innovative programs, emerging in shelters across the country, can be implemented into their current shelter operations. The shelter consultations are part of an intensive training program for veterinary students planning for futures as shelter veterinarians and animal welfare leaders. The pro bono shelter consultation program is made possible by a grant from Maddie’s Fund.

Total Euthanasia Bar Chart by Year and Species, dog or cat, showing a steady decline from 2013 to 2020.

Despite the progress in lifesaving overall, however, gains were larger for dogs than for cats. Shelter intake of cats remained stubbornly high, even as intake for dogs inched down year after year. Once in the shelter, 97 percent of dogs were saved, compared to only 86 percent  of cats. The most dramatic discrepancy was in the chance of a stray animal being returned to its family; 36 percent of dogs were returned home, but only 3 percent of cats.

Additionally, while many shelters held “clear the shelter” events early in the pandemic and animal lovers came forward in droves to foster pets in record numbers, permanent adoptions in Florida actually fell from 204,215 in 2019 to 172,269 in 2020.

“There are numerous reasons why cats are at higher risk in shelters, including a low rate of identification with tags or microchips and a general overpopulation that outstrips available adoption capacity,” said Dr. Levy. “However, a major influence is the large number of free-roaming community cats. These are neighborhood cats that are owned by ‘no one and by everyone.’ They are fed and looked after by sympathetic residents, often at more than one home, but are also the most important source of new kittens. In response, more than half of shelters have established trap-neuter-return programs to reduce the populations of free-roaming cats humanely.”

Disparities also exist between shelters in urban counties compared to rural counties, which tend to have lower budgets, fewer staff, and more basic facilities. The researchers analyzed animal intakes and outcomes per 1,000 county residents as a way to equilibrate populations for comparison. While shelters in urban counties admitted an average of 10 animals per 1,000 residents, rural counties admitted 26 per 1,000 residents, more than twice as many. The combination of higher animal intake in the face of fewer resources created a perilous situation for the animals. Shelters in rural counties euthanized an average of seven cats and dogs per 1,000 residents, nearly five times higher than in urban counties where the rate was only 1.5.

In addition to a mismatch between shelter resources and number of animals to care for, sparsely populated rural communities may also lack enough households to adopt the animals or low-cost spay/neuter programs to help control overpopulation in the first place. As shelter animal lifesaving spreads across the state, a trend is developing for well-resourced urban shelters to assist struggling rural shelters by transferring their animals into areas where there is more demand for pet adoptions. Larger humane organizations are also extending their spay/neuter services into veterinary care deserts prevent the birth of more unwanted animals.

To see additional data and analysis of Florida shelter statistics for 2020 as well as previous years, click here.