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An Open Letter to People Who Surrender Their Pets to the Shelter

At the end of the day, it's all about the animals.

Dorian Wagner  |  Jul 30th 2012


I have very few regrets in my life. And what I originally wrote in this article is one of them.

If you visited this page sometime between July 2012 and when I’m writing this now in April 2017, you would have found something angry, narrow-minded, and, in retrospect, maybe even a little mean. You would have found a guilt-trip-ridden post saying that anyone who surrendered their pet to a shelter, regardless of the reason, was a terrible, horrible, no-good person. You would have seen a post that lacked what I’ve come to learn is one of the most important parts of rescue… compassion.

What I hope to do now is to share the more compassionate way I’ve come to look at situations where people need to rehome or surrender their pets, and hopefully help others see this way of thinking and acting, too.

Five years ago, I was fairly new to rescue. I did a lot of work helping cats that ended up in shelters. For me, at the time, it was all about the cats. It’s hard seeing beautiful, sweet, friendly, wonderful formerly spoiled pets sit in cages in a county shelter. It’s hard to see their sad faces turn happy when you pet them, and then sad again when walk away. It’s hard to know that some of them won’t make it out, simply because space is an issue. Rescue is hard, period.

I used to think that it was so simple: When you adopt a pet, you adopt for life. Right? And nothing in the world should cause you to break that promise you made to that cat or dog. Nothing. And anyone who broke that promise was just terrible for doing it. But what we can’t forget is that we don’t know the stories behind why each these cats’ owners surrendered them to the shelter. Imagine how hard and sad it must have been for the person who had to give up their much-loved pet if they didn’t have any other choice?

The reality is, there are so many reasons why people may be forced to have to part with their pets, and sometimes those reasons are beyond their control. These people have often tried everything in their power to keep their pets or to find friends or family to take them in. They’ve often held on to them as long as they possibly could, until there was just no other option. And at that point, and only at that point, they force themselves to face reality and bring their beloved fur baby to the shelter – many times even with their favorite toys or bed, some cans of food they like, and even their pretty collar still on. It makes me cry even thinking about this now. It’s sad for the cats, but my goodness, how that must rip apart the people who have no other choice. It’s hard to write about it even without crying.

Am I saying that everyone who surrenders a pet does it because they sadly have no other choice? Heck no. I still maintain that way too many pets end up at shelters because of dumb or avoidable reasons (like choosing to move to a place that doesn’t allow pets, or wanting a “younger, cuter” one instead… These things happen all the time). What I am saying, though, is that we shouldn’t automatically assume someone who needs to rehome their pet doesn’t love them or is a horrible person.

As compassionate rescuers and animal-loving people, it’s important not shame people for surrendering their pets. It’s to help them. It takes courage and humility to ask for help. Surrendering your pet to a shelter, when you have no other options, is not a sign of giving up or not caring; in a way, it’s a sign of love and caring. These people could very easily just open the door and let the inside-only cat out to fend for itself or tie a dog to a tree and assume someone else will find them and take care of them (these things happen all the time), or drop them off in the woods somewhere, but they don’t. They pack up their things and take them to a place where they will be fed and at least have a chance of being adopted and finding a new, loving home.

It’s really easy to not see the other side, and tell yourself there’s no reason in the world you’d ever give up your pet. No way, no how. But what would you do if you had a child, and that child ending up being extremely allergic to the cat you’ve loved for 10 years? What if you had no family or friends to beg to take the cat that you absolutely love with all your heart, but your child can no longer be in the same house with? It’s tough. Or what would you do if you lost your job, couldn’t find a new one despite tirelessly searching, and lost your home and had to move in with a family member who lived in a place that did not allow pets? Or what if you are able to just barely keep your home, but there’s no extra money at all to buy cat or dog food? The absolute last thing any of these people want to do is give up their pets, but sometimes uncontrollable sad things happen.

I can’t even imagine being in their shoes and having to come to the realization that you have to part with your pet. It hurts my heart, for both the people and the cats and dogs that love their people just as much as the people love them.

This is where compassionate rescue becomes so important. We have to have a heart and help these people and their pets in their time of great need. We cannot shame them and make them feel bad for having the strength to admit they can no longer keep their pet, for asking for help, or for sadly realizing they cannot provide a good home anymore. We have to help the animals, and, in turn, help the people by providing them relief or comfort. Shaming people or attacking them for “giving up” their pet doesn’t help anything, and it most certainly doesn’t help the animal.

I’ve learned there are shelter diversion programs. These are groups of people who work hard to see if there is anything that all that can possibly be done to keep the cat or dog with their family and out of the shelter.

If it’s a financial issue, these groups will often offer to pay for vaccines and vet bills or provide pet food to families so their cat or dog can stay with them. If all the pet needs is food in order to stay with the family that loves them, that’s a simple fix – but the family has to be able to feel comfortable enough to let someone know they need the help.

Or maybe they’re in a rough patch and someone could temporarily foster their pet while they get back on their feet. If it means giving a cat somewhere to live for a few months, and then they could go back to their loving mom or dad… that could be doable, too.

And if it’s just a situation where there’s no other option, and the pet must find a new home, these shelter diversion programs can often connect the owners with local rescues. This way the cat or dog can avoid a county kill shelter all together and end up in a warm home with a loving foster family until their new family comes along.

Sure, there are circumstances that I will never, ever think are okay. For example, if someone has the means and the money and purposely chooses to move to an apartment that does not allow pets, when there are plenty out there that DO allow pets, that isn’t something I can bring myself to feel compassion for. Same for anyone who thinks their cat or dog is just “getting too old” or “isn’t as playful and cute anymore” and wants a kitten instead. Yes, it happens.

These people should know that adult cats in shelters are usually passed over for “cuter” younger kittens, and that the stress of the shelter environment can often compromise their cat’s immune system. And if they get sick, most county shelters don’t provide a lot of advanced vet care, only the minimum, so a sick cat doesn’t have much time. And if their cat isn’t getting adopted and more and more cats keep coming in… someone is going to have to make a decision based on space. These are just realities, and only a couple of the reasons we need to make sure we all work to do everything we can to keep pets out of shelters unless there’s absolutely no other option.

All of that said, the main thing I try to keep in mind is this: We don’t know everyone’s story. We can’t assume everyone who has to give up a pet is a no-good-horrible human being. Unfortunately, things do happen, and sometimes there are situations where someone just has to find a new home for their pet. No matter how much they love them, and how much it tears them apart to have to do it, that animal just needs a new home. We can’t shame them, or these people may not feel comfortable coming forward or not ask for help at all. We have to have compassion, and do whatever we can to make sure that animal finds a great new home.

Because at the end of the day, it’s all about the animals. And we all want the best for every one, don’t we?