American Humane Association's Animal Welfare Research Institute released the results of the first phase of a three-part study to better understand pet ownership and retention and discover the most effective strategies to ensure homeless animals find their forever homes.

Phase I of the "Keeping Pets (Dogs and Cats) in Homes Retention Study," funded through a grant from PetSmart Charities, examines why some American households don't have a pet through interviews with 1,500 previous pet owners and non-pet owners. Research indicates that of the 117.5 million households in the US., 46.3 million have a dog in their family and 38.9 million own a cat. The group says that understanding the reasons people choose to own or not own a pet is the first step toward developing strategies to increase pet ownership and reduce pet homelessness.

The study found that despite massive public education campaigns encouraging people to adopt from shelters, fewer than one-quarter of previous dog owners (22 percent) and one-fifth of cat owners (18 percent) obtained their prior pet from a shelter or rescue organization. However, 64 percent of prospective owners who previously owned dogs and 56 percent of prospective owners who previously owned cats indicated that they would adopt a dog or cat from a shelter or rescue organization. And, in spite of the widely discussed physical and emotional benefits of pet ownership for older people, seniors citizens over age 65 were among the least likely to consider a pet with nearly 60 percent of seniors who previously owned a dog saying they would not consider another dog, and 66 percent of previous cat owners saying they would not consider another cat. Among seniors who never owned a pet, 90 percent said they would not consider ever getting a dog and 94 percent said they would not consider getting a cat.

These findings suggest that lowering the barriers to pet ownership will require supporting younger future cat owners and continuing to assess negative attitudes toward cats; understanding ongoing grief is a barrier to new pet ownership and identifying methods to help people work through grief; understanding that more future owners may be adopting pets from shelters and rescue agencies and offering support at this point of acquisition; and working with broad segments of society to reduce existing barriers to ownership, such as housing restrictions and veterinary/general expenses.

Phase II of the study will research how many dogs and cats acquired from a sampling of shelters and animal control agencies still remain in their new homes six months following adoption, and what happened to pets who are no longer in those homes. Phase III will test practical interventional strategies for improving retention rates following the acquisition of a new pet.

"By understanding the reasons why so many Americans do not own a pet, and learning what we can do to increase lifelong retention of those that do," said Dr. Robin Ganzert, president and CEO of the American Humane Association, "we can take the necessary steps to change minds, change policies and change activities to help get more of these beautiful animals out of shelters and into the arms of loving families."