When People Fail their Pets: The Broken Human-Animal Bond

Cowboy & Raider: Two more brothers who lost their home last week and are struggling to adjust

For over 12 years, I have been volunteering with shelter pets to help them adjust to being in a shelter setting and find a new loving (and hopefully permanent) home. The one aspect that has not changed over the years are the various reasons why people surrender their pet to a shelter: Moving, new baby, new spouse, newer pet, financial difficulties, and most often because the pet is showing signs of aging or medical decline. Or some people just say that they don’t want the pet anymore.

On the other hand, I have met people who have gone through all of those life-changing events listed above and they kept all of their pets. When I ask them why, their response is simple and clear: They are family.

So what is the difference between someone who moves overseas and takes her cat, and someone who moves to the next city to inhabit an apartment that does not accept pets (where that person chose, was not forced, to select that apartment)? It’s called the human-animal bond.

This issue has been weighing heavily on my mind recently because I’m seeing far too many cats where I volunteer being surrendered. And while I care more about the pet who is suffering the trauma of losing a home, more than I care about the person who abandoned their pet, I think it’s important that we do more to instill the human-animal bond in people. It’s humans who are dropping the ball on this, not pets. It’s human who treat most everything in their life as disposable, including pets. We need to end this trend because it’s a matter of life or death.

When pets are abandoned at a shelter, they can suffer fright, trauma, grief, loneliness, heartache, and actually have a will to die. I have seen it time and time again, especially with cats over the age of 4,  and have offered energy healing and TLC to help them hang on until a proper home can be found. I have even fostered many cats like this and have actually witnessed the grieving process. I am currently spending time with two brothers, Cowboy and Raider, whose family moved to the Middle East. For over a week, these two boys have huddled together in a cage filled with terror. They don’t realize that they are in a safe place and will have all the time in the world to find a home together. They are two of the lucky ones to end up in a safe place; but they just know that they lost their home and their family.

Yesterday, I was informed that one of my precious St. Croix cats is being returned after being in a home for 2-1/2 years. We have been told that the owners are going through a divorce; we have been told that the man is taking one cat, but not this cat; we have been told that the woman is not a cat person and is taking the dogs; we have been told that they have three children; we have been told that our cat has suffered from some skin issues over the years and they are not interested in spending anymore money on her. While the other pets in the home will remain with the family, this cat will not. Hence, there was no bond to this cat. And in my training in energy healing, I would speculate that the skin flare-ups are caused from stress in the home. So while I will be happy to have this cat returned so that we can help her find a new home, I am also distressed that these situations are happening thousands of times each day in every city across America. Most of these beautiful pets lose their lives in the process. We’ve also had 2 cats returned to us this week after being in their homes for 7 years; one cat is now 14.

I try so hard not to judge others because I am not walking in their shoes. I also would rather have these people surrender their pet to a shelter rather than abandon them outside or lock them in a location without food or water. I agree that times are tough for some people, I know that people are stressed and uncertain about the future, but I also know people who have recently lost their jobs, have mortgages to pay, and would never fathom giving up their pets.

Research has documented that pets can lower our blood pressure, keep us healthier, help us recover faster after an illness or surgery, and help ward off depression. Yet when life gets a little challenging, these miracle workers are tossed out like trash. For me, when I’ve had tough times, it was solely my cats that got me through it. We all know that people are becoming more disconnected because of technology, and pets are also getting caught in that cross fire as people are more bonded to their smart phones than their pets.

So let’s imagine a day where family pets are not surrendered to shelters? Not only would that drastically slash the annual euthanize rate of over 4 million pets, but I believe we would enjoy a more compassionate, and less selfish, society. So what do we do to help people bond to their pets? If you work or volunteer at a shelter (or if you are thinking about adopting), here are some ideas to think about when adopting pets:

• Spend time with the new adopter to fully educate them on the cost of having a pet, current medical/behavioral issues, and potential issues that may arise with age. Do not ever hide the issues of a pet because that will surely result in the return of the pet for being misled. And just know that there is someone out there for every pet, no matter what the issue; I’ve witnessed those adoptions countless times!

• Ask in the adoption application what the adopter would do in certain life-changing situations so that you can begin to educate them up front about keeping the pet. Promote the human-animal bond during the adoption process.

• Educate adopters that an adoption is for life. Have adopters sign an adoption contract that states that this is a life-long adoption. Tell them what you have seen in pets who lose their homes, especially elderly pets, and that some become so despondent that they stop eating and lose their will to live. Impress upon the adopter that they are taking home a living, breathing being who has feelings and will bond to them, and they need to do the same.

• Provide follow up care and advice to adopters who may simply need to ask a question regarding a health or behavioral problem. Check in several times in the 6 months after an adoption to ward off any issues and answer questions. Providing these help lines may prevent a pet from being surrendered out of frustration or lack of knowledge.

• Place helpful information about how to resolve health and behavioral issues on your organization’s website.

• Be accessible and return phone calls and emails from adopters and others who are seeking help. It shocks me to know how many organizations do not return phone calls.

• Be there for adopters before the human-animal bond breaks. A little effort up front and throughout the process can result in the pet staying at home.

For everyone who works or volunteers with shelter pets, taking these simple steps will help to instill the human-animal bond in adopters. The more we do this, the fewer animals surrendered to shelters we will see.

I’d love to hear your ideas on how we can establish a stronger human-animal bond between people and their pets, so please speak up (woof … meow)!

All my best,

Allie (and my new kitty Jacob who had previously lost 3 homes)

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3 Comments to When People Fail their Pets: The Broken Human-Animal Bond

  1. Anonymous's Gravatar Anonymous
    May 24, 2016 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    I found this page after a Google search following an extremely painful surrender of my dog after 4 years. The shelter was incredibly rude and judgmental. I believe it is attitudes like these that exacerbate the stress of losing an animal we love. Our pet was aggressive, bit me several times over the last several years. This last time she grabbed my arm and didn’t want to let go. I had to get a tetanus shot and antibiotics. My dog was a part of my family, but she did the unthinkable and it absolutely blew my mind the way I was treated by shelter staff after I made the heart wrenching decision to surrender. As if I was supposed to just I definitely be attacked by my own dog. My concern is like you noted, you’re more concerned about the animals than the humans. I find that shelter staff seriously lacks interpersonal skills needed to navigate these difficult situations and the same compassion toward human beings. At the end of the day, animals have a very limited capacity for feeling and they are very resilient. The pain of having to surrender your pet runs much deeper than they, or clearly you, can understand.

  2. Cy Madison's Gravatar Cy Madison
    September 11, 2016 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Are we being at all serious here? The previous is unmitigated horseshit. Animals CAN be traumatized deeper than a shallow human can understand. Shelter staff does not NEED interpersonal skills. What they need is discernment. Too many animals, mostly puppies, are released to people who have no business having a pet. And rescue people, like myself, are left picking up the pieces. Babies with sleep terrors, attachment issues, never potty-trained. And then turned out because they “don’t measure up”. Or even better, turned out because their “new owner” was getting evicted for non-payment of their rent, and KNEW this before the dog was adopted. People who abandon puppies for ten hours at a stretch. Can’t or won’t afford healthcare. Or even OTC care. Yeah, I will save your pet. But I will hate you for eternity.

  3. anon's Gravatar anon
    August 10, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    This is such a calloused response to why people might surrender a pet. I have no doubt you’ve seen some terrible things, people can be awful. But I was brought to this site because I’m looking for ways to deal with the intense grief of surrendering my own dog, who I have loved and been devoted to for years, but who has problems that run far deeper than I’m able to handle. And I’ll tell you it’s not because we don’t have a human-animal bond. If we didn’t have this bond, I wouldn’t have to keep calling in to work because I couldn’t stop crying, I wouldn’t burst into tears at the thought of him, I wouldn’t be looking for relief online at all. There are people who should never be pet owners, that’s true. There are also people who love their pet with everything they have and still have to come to the painful conclusion that it’s not enough.

    It would be great if we were all able to provide advanced level training, afford every unexpected surgery and medical condition, ensure that our pets never felt scared or anxious, and so on. It would be great if good, loving owners could rescue every shelter pet within the first few weeks of its life and treat it the way it deserves from day 1. But that doesn’t happen and sometimes our best isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to honestly take stock and realize that you’re not equipped to provide for your pet – whether its training skills, financially, or just the basic environment your pet is in (city/rural, kids/no kids, etc.). And that is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make and if you would talk to some of these people with less hostility, I bet you’d find there not all heartless jerks who view their pet as an inconvenience they just can’t wait to ditch. Far from it. This is a deep, personal loss that involves a lot of grief, sadness, and guilt – and it’s made 10x worse by not being able to communicate this with them. I already feel like I’ve failed even though we’ve seen our dog through multiple surgeries, a stream of medical issues, multiple special behaviorists, and a slew of gadgets to help soothe the deeply rooted anxiety he has. It is absolutely and completely devastating to realize that everything you have isn’t enough if you want your pet to truly have the best shot and being happy. I’m assuming you’ve never been through this yourself, otherwise you would know how much of a failure this already makes you feel like on top of knowing that there are people out there like you who will judge without understanding.

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