It's time to rethink the term "forever home"

Why Animal Humane Society is trying to change the stigma around animal surrender

Dog posing in front of AHS adoption center

A forever home. It’s a common term shelters use to describe an animal’s adoption. Yet many dogs, cats, and critters will be loved by more than one family, under more than one roof. According to data gathered by Shelter Animals Count, in 2019, nearly 100,000 pets were surrendered to shelters by families who could no longer care for them.

Surrendering a pet is a difficult and often heartbreaking decision that thousands of pet owners have to make every year. Despite being common, surrendering a pet is often met with criticism from friends, family, and other animal lovers in the community. People rush to judgement without knowing the details or acknowledging the anguish that results from saying goodbye to a pet.

"Pets have become even more integral parts of our lives – our families," says Janelle Dixon, President and CEO of AHS. "While seemingly simple, the human-animal bond and relationship are complicated. A whole host of challenges and barriers can result in a family having to surrender an animal."

The decision to rehome or surrender a pet can often mean putting your pet's welfare ahead of your own emotional needs. That’s why Animal Humane Society is trying to change the stigma around animal surrender — and approaches every surrender situation with compassion and without judgement.

"We've been sold an ideal that that every pet should have a forever home. For many, this is their good fortune, and for others, it is not," says Dixon. "Some pets are forever in a home that is not healthy or humane and the animal’s life would be immeasurably improved with another family. Others are loved and there is a challenge that is insurmountable for that family and their life situation."

Last year, nearly 10,000 animals were surrendered to AHS. We took a look at the top reasons families have surrendered a pet to AHS in the last three years. The results might surprise you, and the reasons are always much more complex than the simplified summary suggests.

Top five reasons animals are surrendered to AHS

1. Not enough time for a pet

The number one reason families surrender their pets to AHS is because they don’t feel they have enough time to give their pet the love and care they deserve.

Caring for an animal can be a big time commitment. Sometimes, for reasons outside our control, the amount of time we can dedicate to our pets changes. Major life events (like accidents and illness), job changes, and even aging can drastically impact the amount of attention we’re able to give our furry friends.

Some new pet owners may also bring an animal into their lives without realizing the amount of time and energy it requires. AHS isn’t here to shake a finger at people surrendering an animal due to lack of time. In fact, we applaud them for acknowledging the issue and giving their pets an opportunity to live a better life in a different home.

2. Moving/landlord issues

Moving is another common reason for pet surrender. Breed restrictions can put pet owners in a precarious situation (especially since Pit Bulls aren’t actually a dog breed, but are often banned from apartment buildings or multi-family dwellings). Landlords might institute a new rule, forcing pet owners to weigh the risk of losing their pet or losing housing.

Some caregivers surrender their pets because they must move into a senior living facility, half-way home, or rehabilitative center. Financial stress can lead to eviction, which can lead to homelessness. Regardless of the reason for surrender, we treat each person with kindness and compassion, because without our animal loving community, AHS wouldn’t exist.

3. Too many animals

The number of pets in your household may have at one time seemed manageable. But blending families, divorce, and even age can impact capacity for care. Three animals can be too many for someone who just celebrated a 90th birthday, or for a nurse who’s taking on more hours in their local ICU. When a family becomes overwhelmed with the number of pets in their home, they often turn to AHS for help. And when appropriate, we’ll offer low-cost spay/neuter services to help reduce unwanted litters, which brings us to our next reason…

4. Unwanted litters

There aren’t many animal lovers equipped to welcome an entire litter of kittens into their home. Still, financial barriers to spay/neuter mean not everyone has access to pet sterilization. In some communities, there’s stigma around spay/neuter. Unwanted litters may also appear under your porch or in a barn.

AHS is glad to help these young animals find new, loving families. We also combat pet overpopulation through our veterinary centers and community outreach programs, which offer discounted spay and neuter services.

Did you know there’s more than one good reason to spay or neuter your pet? Help us spread the word!

5. Allergies

Pet allergies are common — in fact, about 10 to 20% of people experience allergic reactions around animals. While some allergies are treatable with a quick dose of an antihistamine, others are more severe and develop over time.

When you introduce a baby into your family, for example, there’s truly no way of knowing they’ll experience a severe allergic reaction to your cat as a toddler. Pet owners who surrender their animals due to allergies face the difficult decision of prioritizing their pet or their own health (or family member’s health) and daily well-being.

Man cuddling sleepy cat

Other common reasons for pet surrender 

Other common reasons for surrendering an animal include illness or death, veterinary care costs, and behavioral concerns (such as aggression toward new babies, unmanageable separation anxiety, or house-soiling). AHS accepts every animal surrendered to us no matter what the reason.

The average length of stay in one of our shelters is a little over 10 days. In that time, an animal can find an adoptive home that will love and care for them. From the surrender appointment, to initial exams, to the adoption floor (and sometimes foster care in between), every animal at AHS receives individualized care and attention from animal-loving experts.

We know firsthand that when surrendering a pet is the only option, it is almost always in the best interest of the animal. Surrendering an animal presents an opportunity for dogs, cats, and critters to find homes where they’ll receive the love and care they need to thrive.

For so many reasons, not every pet will experience the idyllic notion of a “forever home.” And that’s okay — because together we can ensure pets are loved on every step of their journey. After all, every animal deserves a second chance, and every pet parent seeking help deserves a dependable, nonjudgement resource they can count on.

AHS will always be there for people and pets in need, with open arms and a commitment to animals and the community we serve.

More information about pet surrender

Looking for alternative to surrendering your pet? Check out these tips and resources.

Thinking of surrendering? Learn more about the surrender process now.

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline