Relinquishing a Pet: A More Complex Perspective

Why do people relinquish their animals? Of the many different studies conducted to answer this question, one in particular has had a profound effect on me, enough that I could call it my favorite article. The article is called: “Surrendering pets to shelters: the relinquisher’s perspective”, published in Anthrozoos in 1998 by Natalie DiGaicomo, Arnold Arluke, and Gary Patronek. As a researcher much more used to a quantitative perspective, this article has touched my heart because of the way it brings emotional meaning and deep understanding to such an important subject. Further more, it has changed my own perspective and made me realize that the decision to relinquish a pet is more complex than can be captured by a single line on a paper form.

In this article the authors were trying to understand the reasons why people relinquish their animals. They believed that due to the social undesirability of surrendering, the explanations reported in the literature so far should be questioned.  Moreover, they pointed out that previous researchers did not create the right interview environment that would be nonjudgmental, supportive and relaxed enough so people could provide their honest answers.  Due to these reasons, the authors decided to use a qualitative approach. They asked surrendering owners to participate in an anonymous interview right after they relinquished their pet.  The interviewers set up a counseling-like environment, allowing the respondents to disconnect in their minds the interviewers from the shelter staff. Many respondents, in fact, felt relieved after the interview and thanked the interviewer for being invited into the study.

After the completion of 38 interviews, all results were analyzed and major themes emerged. Interviews revealed that the relinquishing process was a complex decision which started long before people brought their animal to the shelter. Many owners procrastinated relinquishing their animal until the circumstances overcame the attachment to the animal and any negative perceptions of the shelter.  The results from the interviews were also quite different from what owners reported on the intake profiles. For example: one owner wrote on the intake form that “barking” was the reason for relinquishment. However, during the interview, he actually reported that the family was moving to an apartment and was forced to consider neighbors in the building. In fact, “barking” had never bothered the family members before.

All factors contributing to the relinquishment decision were grouped into three broad categories: acquisition problems, internal pressure, and external pressure.  For the majority of people who were grouped into the acquisition problem category, getting the pet they were relinquishing was not their decision. Some of them “inherited” pets from relatives or friends, while some took in an abandoned animal. They considered these animals as temporary pets until they could find them a better place. The major internal pressure reasons were financial/time constraints, health problems, and the family dynamic. For the outside pressure category, the main reasons were:  people outside of the family such as a landlord or neighbors who complained about the pet or factors generated specifically by the pet such as behavior problems. Overall, many respondents were unsuccessful in their attempt to resolve the situation that led to relinquishment, in many cases due to the fact that they were simply very poorly informed.

This article gives a different angle on the reasons for pet surrenders. It does not try to justify the owner’s decision but rather to inform shelters about the complexity of the situation, which intake forms and interviews many times do not capture. The authors advise shelters to try to become more of a resource for the public, and relinquishing owners in particular. According to the authors, shelters should advise owners about alternatives such as training classes, rescues with foster homes, or breed-specific rescues.  In this way, shelters can  change the public perception of shelters from being viewed as a last resort to being viewed as a place owners can seek options and assistance long before they seriously consider relinquishing an animal. Because if not shelters, who else can provide this critical information to the public?


DiGiacomo, Natalie, Arnold Arluke, and Gary Patronek. “Surrendering pets to shelters: The relinquisher’s perspective.” Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals 11.1 (1998): 41-51.