How to Stop Spending $2B a Year Killing the Pets We Love

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Last year I was scrambling to find a place to live, frustrated because the vast majority of the apartments on Craigslist either did not allow pets or allowed only one (usually a cat or small dog).

But I have two cats I was determined to keep, especially in light of a string of recent deaths in my immediate family that strengthened my attachment to my animals. Luckily I found a place on time, but the experience led me to consider the role no-pet and one-pet policies play in the pandemic of pet homelessness and euthanasia in our country.

Here in the United States, approximately 12 million cats and dogs are relinquished to animal shelters every year, about half of which are euthanized. In fact, euthanasia of relinquished pets is by far the leading cause of death among cats and dogs in this country.

It costs U.S. taxpayers $2 billion annually to impound, shelter, euthanize and dispose of homeless animals. Those that are not euthanized may be sold legally to research laboratories in up to 33 states in a practice known as "pound seizure."

According to the National Council of Pet Population Study & Policy, "moving" is the most-cited reason people give for surrendering their animals to shelters, with "landlord issues" close behind. A poll conducted by the Humane Society of the United States showed that 35% of people without pets would own one if their rentals permitted it.

Even as so many pets are put to sleep annually, we are a nation enamored with them, spending an estimated $38 billion every year on their comfort and care. A poll by AP-Petside last year found that 71% of the people surveyed agreed with euthanasia for cats and dogs only when an animal is "too sick to be treated or too aggressive to be adopted" -- not for population control.

It suggests that if more housing allowed pets, it could stem the staggering rates of pet surrender and euthanasia.

In most states, though, only government-subsidized housing is subject to regulations on pets. As part of the Pet Ownership in Public Housing Act, federal law allows for tenants to have pets in public housing, but it is subject to "reasonable regulations" established by a particular public housing agency and can include pet deposits or fees or restrictions on the size, weight or number of pets allowed in a specific unit or building.

Many state-run or municipal-run public housing agencies allow pets for some people with certain restrictions. For instance, tenants in public housing developments in California who are either disabled or 60 or older may keep up to two small pets per apartment. Minnesota, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia also allow elderly and disabled tenants in state-owned housing to have pets. On the municipal level, the Boston Housing Authority allows a maximum of two pets in one- and two-bedroom apartments and a maximum of three pets in three-bedroom apartments. One town over, the Cambridge Housing Authority allows only birds and fish in their family developments, while cats and dogs are allowed in the elderly developments.

In certain instances, people suffering from a mental or physical illness can apply for "reasonable accommodation" exemptions under the American Disability Act by citing the therapeutic benefits of their pets. Likewise, parents with children afflicted with certain disabilities such as autism may also qualify to get an allowance for pets. These requests often require a note from a doctor or medical professional. They are usually decided on a case-by-case basis.

Another complication adding to the issue of pet homelessness is the role of breed-specific bans.

As many as 17 states have county agencies with bans on specific breeds of dogs in public housing. One of the most well-known cases is in New York City, where the New York City Housing Authority banned the new ownership of more than 25 dog breeds, including American pit bull terriers, Rottweilers and dobermans. The ban applied to new ownership and to those tenants who already owned qualifying dogs but failed to register their dogs and provide valid vet records by a deadline.

When the ban went into effect in May 2009, 113 dogs were immediately surrendered to the New York City Animal Care and Control Centers, 49 of which were euthanized.

In August, the Obama administration released a statement criticizing housing bans and other forms of breed specific legislation, or BSL. The statement was the official response to an online petition that called for a federal law outlawing regulations that target dogs by breed and which has so far garnered more than 30,000 signatures.

The administration didn't support a federal ban directly, but did say it was in agreement with the American Bar Association's formal call for "breed-neutral laws."

For many people with pets struggling to find or keep housing, the administration's response is not enough.

According to the nonprofit Pet Partners, "people can suffer, emotionally and physically, from the stress of being forced to choose between their homes and their pets, and animals are often needlessly abandoned and euthanized."

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