This is a little late but the Independence Day holiday always brings up one of the most commonly used set of bad statistics in animal welfare. This year I received it in a product promotion email and it led to a nice exchange with the sender, who ended up modifying the copy and being very nice about it (because we know how much people like being wrong). The statistic used was this one:
It’s common knowledge that pets run away during fireworks and that shelters are flooded with pets on July 5, right? Go ask anyone at a shelter and they’ll confirm this. But like most “common knowledge” this may be based more in lore than in fact.
Do some additional pets enter shelters because they are frightened by fireworks? Certainly. But do 30% of pets go missing and only 15% find their way back home on July 4? Absolutely, unequivocally, no.
Let’s take the low end estimate of the number of 140 million owned cats and dogs in the United States (2011, APPA survey). If 30% of dogs and cats ran off at the sound of booming fireworks this year, it would mean that 42 million pets ran away. Since only 7.6 million pets enter animal shelters all year long (ASPCA estimate), that means 35 million pets should be running around the streets of America on July 5. Did you see hordes of confused canines and felines on your road?
And is only 15% of those lost pets find their way home, it means of that of those 42 million lost pets, 35.7 million pets don’t make it home. That’s 25% of the total pet population in the US. It also means that on July 5, one in four pets in America is lost forever. If you are reading an animal blog like this you probably have four pets. Was one missing ten days ago? Did every 4th pet owning house on your block start posting missing signs for Fluffy? Probably not.
So what gives with this oft reported statistic that the simplest of math shows to be clearly false? It is another great example of when a little data starts to play whisper down the lane. The problem is in the misreading and misstating of facts. The sender directed me to this website which presented the following information:
“PetAmberAlert….The stark numbers illustrate what a devastating time of year this can be for pets and their owners: 30% more pets are lost between July 4th and 6th than any other time of year.
Founder Mark Jakubczak explained, Sadly, only 14% of lost pets are returned to their owners, according to nationwide statistics. And worse, 30-60% of lost pets are euthanized…”
Aside from the marketing histrionics of using a term like “Pet Amber Alert” for lost pets and loaded words like “stark” and “devastating” and then going for the jugular with unsupported rehoming and euthanasia statistics (Microchip your pet now- NOW!!!!- before Fluffy gets the NEEDLE at a shelter…aaarrgh!!!!!), we can actually see that the 30% statistic is used to claim an increase in strays on or around July 4th, not to say that 30% of all pets stray. That’s a world of difference.
And when I say a world of difference, I mean a world of difference. What started as 42 million strays becomes a mere blip on the statistical radar. If we accept the ASPCA estimate that 7.6 million pets enter shelters each year and two thirds of them are strays (a reasonable estimate in my experience), then about five million strays enter shelters each year. For ease of discussion, let’s say that strays enter shelters evenly throughout the year- they don’t, but let’s say they do- then every day 13,698 stray cats and dogs enter shelters. If 30% more run off on July 4, that’s an extra 4,109 strays entering shelters nationwide on July 5. Taken against the entire owned pet population of 140 million, that is .00003% of pets, not 30%. What a difference several decimal points can make.
Of course these numbers are broad brush and animals enter shelters as strays at different rates throughout the year and not all strays enter shelters, blah, blah. However, I think you’ll agree that 4,109 fireworks strays is closer to zero than to 42,000,0000 fireworks strays.
Pet identification and microchip companies use statistics like these to scare the bejeezus out of pet owners so we’ll buy their products. Shelter workers use these statistics to bemoan the idiot pet owners of the world and show what great martyrs they are to the cause. But the facts don’t back up the claims and we don’t need the hysterics to know we should have ID on our pets and that there are strays in shelters.
As long as we spend our time worrying about and repeating “common knowledge” with no basis in reality, whether its fireworks strays, big black dog worries, or black cat Halloween adoptions, we aren’t paying attention to the very real and very solvable problems really facing animals in our nation’s shelters.