With up to 10 million unwanted dogs and cats euthanized in this country each year, researchers are trying to find out what makes an unsuccessful pet owner.
"What causes the breakdown in the human-animal bond? Psychological problems? Social problems? Mental stress?" asked Dr. Mo Salman of the Colorado State University Veterinary School, who is coordinating the yearlong study by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy.
"We hear stories like this: 'I work 10 hours a day, I'm single, I go home and the dog wants to play with me, but I'm tired so we'd better put the dog in the pound,' " Salman said.
There is the college student who adopts a kitten at the start of a semester and gets rid of it at semester break.
There is the cute little German shepherd puppy that grows too big for a one-bedroom apartment.
And so the sad euthanasia sessions go on routinely at thousands of animal shelters across the nation, the dead pups and kittens, the older dogs and cats, all carefully stacked in still rows for final disposal by cremation or in landfills. The annual cost runs to $125 million or more.
"By my observations, some people take these animals almost like they would buy a piece of furniture . . . and in the end, like a chair, replace it with another" when its initial charm wears off, Salman said.
The council conducting the study is funded by 10 major animal groups, including the American Animal Hospital Assn., American Humane Assn., American Kennel Club, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Veterinary Medical Assn.
The study, which will cost at least $200,000, will be finished by next March. Results should be available in July, 1996.
Carol Moulton, council president and associate director of the Englewood, Colo.-based American Humane Assn.'s animal protection division, said the study will:
* Survey selected animal shelters to determine how many animals enter the shelters and how many of them are adopted or euthanized.
* Establish an accurate national base line of numbers of animals euthanized annually. The best numbers today range from 5 million to 10 million. Cost estimates for euthanasia range from $25 to $45 per animal.
* Interview people at the shelters as they turn in their animals to try to learn what makes an unsuccessful pet relationship.
"Traditionally, it's been looked at as an animal problem--they shed too much, bark too much, are not housebroken and are too much trouble. But you know people who have pets that do some or all of those, and they would never consider giving up their pets," Moulton said.
Interviewers at the study shelters will attempt to put 58 questions to people dropping off their pets.
A similar questionnaire will be mailed to 80,000 pet owners in hopes of assembling a profile of people who keep their pets. Salman hopes to develop a questionnaire for potential pet owners to determine whether they are likely to give up their pets later.
Salman said pet suppliers could look at the completed questionnaire and possibly tell a prospective pet buyer: "We identify you as a high-risk owner of a pet. Therefore, you have to satisfy the following criteria or you cannot have the pet."
He made an analogy with blood donors:
"In the 1980s, anybody could donate blood. Currently, when you try to donate blood, they will ask you certain questions and then may classify you as a high risk in transmitting certain pathogenic agents . . . and they will say, 'Sorry, we can't accept your blood.' "
Just what intervention methods would be employed for pets has not been determined, he said.
Salman said he hopes the study's findings will educate people about their obligation to their pets.
"It is all part of the family value, how we are raised and live in the family group," Salman said. "The more we break these ties, the more we break our bond with the animals. It is the same thing."