Updated: Feb 16
If you’re in the field of animal rescue, then you probably know that an animal is usually in trouble as soon as someone contacts your animal rescue to express interest in surrendering their pet.
Even outside of the animal rescue community, there’s still a big stigma surrounding pet owners who surrender their pets.
A lot of people genuinely believe that responsible pet owners rarely surrender their pets.
It’s not uncommon to hear pet owners say things like “I could never surrender my pet.” Most of these pet owners are telling the truth. Their pets are like family.
But if that's the case, then why do some pet owners still choose to surrender their pets to animal shelters? We're about to tell you!
Why Do Owners Surrender Their Pets?
People rarely abandon their family members so why would they willingly abandon their pets?
The truth is there are a lot of different reasons.
Here are some of the most common reasons why pet owners surrender their pets:
The owner lost their job and is no longer able to care for their pet’s basic needs.
The animal needs veterinary care that is too expensive for the owner to afford.
The owner is facing homelessness due to a recent eviction.
The owner is unable to manage the animal’s behaviour.
In all these instances it is clear as day that these animals are in trouble.
Yet many animal rescues are still choosing not to accept owner surrenders.
If your organization chooses to turn these people away, then your organization is also choosing to turn these animals away.
Can you really turn away animals in need and still call yourself an animal rescue?
Many would argue you can’t.
The primary goal of an animal rescue is to provide support to animals in need, to prevent them from being abused or neglected.
If your animal rescue is choosing to decline animals in need even in instances where you can afford to help, then are you really an animal rescue?
You’ll have to ask yourselves that.
Here’s why owner surrenders bother you so much.
Your focused on the people and not the animals. You’re probably thinking that that was a bold statement. It was, but it was also the truth.
Animal rescues are full of pet lovers who could never imagine surrendering their own pets. That makes it very difficult for your team to empathize with owners who surrender their pets.
‘Owner surrenders’ as they’re commonly referred to outrage animal rescue professionals everywhere. Even the owners know this.
Most owners who surrender their pets know there’s a social stigma surrounding it. They know they’re going to be judged for their decision.
Unfortunately, many of these owners still view surrendering their pet as their only option based on their personal situations.
Here’s why animal rescues should always accept owner surrenders.
A lot of pet owners are fearful of contacting an animal rescue to re-home their pets.
For the most part, their fears are centered around being labelled as not just bad pet owners but also as bad people.
If pet owners are unable to get past the fear of being judged then they are more likely to experiment with alternative methods of re-homing.
Pet Owners will try to re-home their pets themselves.
Re-homing an animal is a difficult process that cannot be taken lightly. Animal rescues know this first-hand.
Educating prospective adopters is a major part of the adoption process.
If a pet owner lacks the expertise needed to care for their pet, then how can they educate the prospective adopter on how to care for the animal?
The adoption process is a very structured process for a reason.
A lot of special skills and expertise goes into crafting questionnaires and interview forms.
Adoption counsellors are trained on interview tactics designed to extract the information needed to determine if an animal will be a good fit for the prospective adopter, their family and their home.
Animal rescues can use screening techniques to verify a lot of the information they receive.
Animal rescues also make it a point to educate prospective adopters on how to care for the animals they’re interested in adopting.
Most animal rescues even go as far as to provide post-adoption support to new adopters.
The likelihood of a struggling pet owner having that level of skills and expertise needed to find their pet a loving forever home is very low.
Animals may be forced to remain in situations where they’re either neglected or abused.
In instances where owners choose to keep their animals, there’s no guarantee that their situation will have improved.
If an owner tried to re-home their pet because they were unable to provide their pet with veterinary care then there is no guarantee that the animal will receive the veterinary care they so desperately need once your animal rescue turns the animal away.
If an owner tried to re-home their pet because they are unable to handle the animal’s behavioural concerns then there is no guarantee that they will be able to handle those behavioural concerns once your animal rescue turns the animal away.
There's also no guarantee that the owner will not respond to the animal's behaviour in a way that will further escalate the behaviour.
These skills are difficult to develop.
How can we expect the owners to access the resources or develop the skillsets needed to properly care for their pets if animal rescues continuously turn these struggling pet owners away?
There’s also no real guarantee that these owners will even choose to keep their pets.
Owners may choose to abandon their pets.
It’s not uncommon for owners to abandon pets outdoors.
Some of these owners will tie their dog’s leashes to poles, others will simply let the dogs off their leashes and leave them to roam free.
Sometimes owners will abandon cats, bunnies, guinea pigs, rats or mice in parks.
In each of these instances, the animals are at risk of being preyed on by larger predators.
Sometimes owners will even go as far as to leave the pets behind, alone, in their previous place of residence, expecting a landlord to find the pet and re-home them.
Sometimes landlords find pets on time, other times they don’t.
Owners may choose to surrender their pets to a kill-shelter.
Unfortunately, as we all know, not all animal shelters are no-kill shelters.
If the animal’s owner chooses to surrender their animal to a kill-shelter than it is possible for the animal to be ‘euthanized’ due to a lack of resources.
Even if the animal can make it out of an animal shelter alive, you still have to consider how much higher the animal’s chances are of contracting an infection or disease in an overcrowded shelter.
In this instance, an animal may lose their life because your animal rescue chose not to accept an owner surrender.
Here’s what to do if your animal rescue can’t accept an owner surrender.
You can help animals in these unfortunate situations by of course accepting owner surrenders.
Your animal rescue should indicate in your intake policy that your organization is willing to accept owner surrenders.
In fact, you should have an entire program designed to assist owners who choose to surrender their pets.
Your intake team should also receive training on an ongoing basis designed to teach them the importance of not judging owners who choose to surrender their pets.
Even if your animal rescue commits to accepting owner surrenders, there may still be instances where it’s difficult.
There are tons of reasons why animal rescues may be unable to accept owner surrenders.
Here are some common barriers that can make it difficult for your organization to accept owner surrenders:
Your organization does not have the funds needed to care for the animal.
Your organization is already operating close to maximum capacity.
Your animal care team does not have enough foster parents or animal care personnel to care for the animal in need.
In these instances, you can still use an easy to follow a three-step process to help animals in need.
1. Complete an assessment.
Your intake team needs to gather more information on the animal’s situation. Why does the owner want to surrender their pets?
This is an opportunity for you to provide the owner with additional support.
If the pet owner is struggling to manage their pet’s behaviour, then your intake team can commit to teaching the owner how to manage the behaviour.
If the pet owner is struggling to access emergency veterinary care, then your intake team could direct the owner towards a subsidized clinic in their area.
If the pet owner is struggling to provide for their pet’s basic needs, then your intake team can direct them towards a pet food bank in your community. The possibilities are endless.
In each of these instances, your intake team can take the steps necessary to improve each of these animals’ situations.
2. Use a waiting list.
If your animal rescue is unable to accept an owner surrender then you should at the very least, be placing the animal on a waiting list.
That way you can still help the animal in need - as soon as you get the space.
3. Contact other animal rescues in your area.
Once you’ve placed an animal on your intake waitlist, you should also go the extra mile by telephoning other animal rescues in your region to find out if any of them have space for the animal.
Your animal shelter or animal rescue should be pre-screening any animal rescues whom you plan to re-home animals to.
The unfortunate reality is that the field of animal rescue is not very regulated.
Unfortunately, this lack of regulation often leads to instances where animals are abused in-care.
Pre-screening other animal rescues is part of keeping any animals you send to their facilities safe.
If your intake team leaves the onus to complete this task on the owner then there will be no way to ensure that the animal will end up in a safe facility.
Remember, you can help more animals by helping people!
As time goes by you’ll learn from personal experience why it’s important not to judge pet owners who surrender their pets as many animal rescue volunteers have.
By this point, you’ve probably figured out that accepting owner surrenders is a great opportunity for your animal rescue to protect vulnerable animals in need.
The purpose of this article is to stress the importance of training your organization’s workers and volunteers to provide great customer service when handling owner surrenders.
It sounds like we’re asking for a lot. We know. It’s normal to dislike owner surrenders but there are a lot of reasons to still provide these owners with a great customer service experience.
Here's How to Train Your Intake Team to Handle Owner Surrenders Judgment Free
Train your intake team to remember that owners surrender their pets for a variety of reasons.
Here are some of the many reasons why people return companion animals to animal shelters or animal rescues:
They're relocating abroad
They've developed allergies
They no longer have the income to sustain the pet
Their landlord is requesting the removal of the pet
The owner is fleeing an abusive relationship
The animal needs veterinary care that the family cannot afford
In most of these instances, owners feel forced to bring their companion animals to your organization.
But that doesn’t change the fact that they still fear judgment.
Most owners who surrender their pets are terrified of being judged by the animal shelter or animal rescue’s workers and volunteers.
The United States of America has ‘safe-haven laws’ to address the fear of judgment among mothers who abandon their newborn babies.
‘Safe Haven Laws’ were created to prevent mothers from abandoning their babies at unsafe locations.
The creation of judgment-free zones for mothers in need has saved the lives of countless newborn babies.
The fear that pet owners feel when surrendering their pets to animal shelters or animal rescues is similar to the type of fear described.
If someone is fearful of surrendering their pet to a local shelter, then the odds of them re-homing their pets using one of the many unsafe options available to them are higher.
Owners expect surrendering their pets to be a terrible experience.
Most owners expect to have a terrible experience while surrendering their pet to an animal shelter or animal rescue.
These owners are just waiting for a member of your team to make a comment, facial expression or body gesture that can be perceived as judgmental.
Your intake team needs to understand the importance of empathizing with owners who surrender their pets.
Your intake team also needs to be taught the skills necessary to empathize with owners.
Your organization is who is responsible for providing them with that training.
Your intake team needs to reassure these owners that your organization is not there to judge them. Instead, you’re there to provide support to them and their pets.
Here's what will happen if pet owners in your community feel judged when surrendering pets!
Animals will suffer if you judge owners who surrender their pets.
Never forget that turning away owner surrenders means turning away animals in need. These owners are contacting your animal rescue because they’re struggling to care for their pets.
When you turn these owners away, you’re also turning away their animals who are also in need.
If an owner does not have the time, skills or resources to care for their animals then that’s a huge deal.
How can we expect problems of this magnitude to disappear without the intervention of experts such as yourself?
Here's what happens when owners feel judged by your animal rescue:
1. The owner who is untrained on how to screen prospective adopters will try to re-home the animal themselves.
2. The owner may choose to keep their pet - without resolving any of the issues that made them want to re-home their pet, to begin with.
3. The owner may choose to abandon the pet outdoors.
4. The owner may surrender the pet to an animal shelter.
You won't be able to educate owners who feel judged.
You cannot educate someone who’s offended by you. It really is that simple.
If your intake team is not able to provide owners with a positive customer service experience, then they will be less likely to be receptive to learning new information or skills.
Owners who surrender their pets need to be educated on how to be responsible pet owners.
Your animal rescue should not allow anything to interfere with your organization’s ability to take advantage of the opportunity to provide them with education.
Your animal rescue's reputation will be at risk.
If you fail to provide your intake team with the training necessary to deliver a judgment-free customer service experience, then you’re also failing to protect your animal rescue’s reputation.
Owners who feel judged will need to find a way to cope with those feelings.
It’s not uncommon for people to cope with their feelings by talking to their family and friends.
The last thing your organization wants is for owners in your community to start saying negative things about your animal rescue.
If your animal rescue is dependent on donations, then you definitely cannot afford to fail to provide your intake team with this type of sensitivity training.
Your animal rescue may receive bad reviews.
Sometimes owners who feel judged when surrendering their pet to an animal rescue may feel angry.
That anger can be a driving factor behind a person’s decision to leave your animal shelter or animal rescue a bad review.
If your organization starts to receive bad reviews, then that decreases the likelihood of other owners in your community using your animal shelter or animal rescue’s services.
Owner surrenders need to be handled with delicacy.
If your intake team does not receive sensitivity training on how to perfect judgment-free owner surrenders, then animals in your community will be forced to face the consequences of that decision.
For more tips on how to service the needs of people and animals in your community, follow Rescue Corner.