Michael Hamilton By Michael Hamilton • March 21, 2020

Debunking the ASPCA's Lost Pets Statistics

In 2012, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals released the results of a paid survey to the public that has since been touted by sources such as the Huffington Post as the first national study on missing pet statistics, but nothing could be further from the truth and it calls attention to thier overall lack of data transparency.

Have you ever walked through a crowded parking garage and forgotten exactly where it was in the garage that you parked? Chances are you eventually pulled out your keys, pressed the panic button, followed the sound then drove off.  

You never had to report your car stolen because you found it after a few minutes. Nevertheless, a flawed argument could be made that the car was technically missing as it was out of your possession, regardless of the length of time, but it would be completely unreasonable to have a common incidence like this included in any statistics on the recovery rate of stolen vehicles. Imagine how those numbers would spike and how the ratio of cars found or “returned” would offset the actual. It would be fair and safe to conclude that the numbers were inflated, grossly misleading, and would have absolutely no value. 

In 2012 the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals released the results of a paid survey to the public with equally flawed logic. 

The results are totally skewed have the potential to mislead pet owners into a false sense of security.  This also raises many questions regarding the ASPCA’s overall lack of data transparency to this day. These questions will be addressed below.

ASPCAs 2012 national missing pet survey

About the survey

The survey which can be read in its entirety here.

A third party telemarketing firm out of Ohio was hired to conduct the survey by dialing random telephone numbers.

The methods in which the data was obtained and how it was utilized are presented in white paper form buried among lines of boring text that the eye will naturally want to skim over to get right to the conclusion which is exactly what VetStreet’s Arden Moore did when reporting on the survey’s findings which were then later copied and pasted by the Huffington Post and touted as “the first published national study on lost pets”. Nothing could be further from the truth.The actual percentage of cats and dogs reported lost was lower than researchers expected, but the percentage of lost dogs safely returned to their homes was higher than they anticipated.”

Discussion / disqualification. 

The survey deliberately skewed its numbers by adding irrelevant variables and eliminating key variables for an intended result. 

Time was a variable that was tossed out of the data entirely.

“The specific circumstances under which the pet was considered to be lost would also be useful. This is an area of future research that should be explored”.


The definition of lost pets used in this “study” was deliberately designed to be broad so that owners of pets would include any time they were concerned about the absence of the pet from the home. “This does mean that the responses for a lost pet were based on the owner’s concern and belief that the pet was lost and not an objective definition.”

The key differentiator is reported vs. not reported.

The survey focused on pets that were missing temporarily and found before being reported missing. That is a huge difference and throws off the numbers considerably. Call it a day. Purpose of the survey over. 

Why couldn’t the ASPCA look internally at their own data?

One would assume that it would be a more efficient use of time and resources for the ASPCA to simply look internally at their own data.  The fact that they needed to hire a third party telemarketing firm to survey random telephone numbers in as late as 2020 is appalling. The fact they still lack the ability in 2020 is unbelievable.

By comparison, 2006 saw corporations penalized and fined billions of dollars for not backing up their data.  In 2007 the FRCP made it mandatory for all corporations to retain their data for no less than 7 years. Why shouldn't the ASPCA, an organization that raises $225 million by soliciting donations from the public directly not be held to even the most basic standards of accountability?

The importance of data

The problem over missing pets is broadly known. However, when it comes to finding any national data on the subject, the numbers are impossible to pinpoint as there is no national reporting structure that exists.  Shelters and rescues are simply not required to report this information.  This needs to change.

Data should drive decisions that can help save companion animals’ lives and prevent homelessness. Having the most accurate data is also essential to ending the killing of cats and dogs that are put in shelters. Nevertheless, because shelters and rescues do not keep track of the number of animals that are taken in, adopted, euthanized, or reclaimed Americans are seeking answers.

Perhaps if 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporations were held to the same standards of accountability as the private sector there would be more transparency.

What we know (from Data)

Americans love their pets.

We know this based on key metrics and quantifiable, measurable data reported by the private sector in the form of sales, P/L ratios… taxes.

Total U.S. Pet Industry Expenditures

Year                 Billions of dollars

2020                 $99.0 Estimated
2019                 $95.7 Actual
2018                 $90.5 (2018 figures have been restated using APPA’s new research methodology).


From these numbers we can gather that Americans are not relinquishing pets at the rate reported by the ASPCA.

And if the ASPCA has data on relinquishment, how can they not have any data on the number of pets they take in, adopt out, and euthanize? 

What was the purpose of the survey?

At first glance, it appears to actually minimize the problem which is ironic.  After all, we have all seen those sappy commercials with Sarah McGlachlan that ruin your whole day, but if you take into account that only 3 cents on every dollar raised actually goes towards animals and nearly five times that amount (14%) goes towards advertising to solicit more donations, people may want to reconsider donating.  This was a deliberate attempt to skew data to yield a higher return of displaced pets.


The remaining 83% raised from donations covers operating expenses which includes the salaries of marketing people to manage their online reputation. 

Gaming the Content Game

SEO requires continuous attention to various metrics such as keyword performance, back link strategy, and content followed by further analysis and reevaluation of all the above. Do a search on any random topic that can be construed about them in any way but positive and there is a PPC campaign to offset it. Want to know the percentage of each dollar raised that actually goes to animals? Do a search and you will find a PPC campaign to donate.

Their counter content strategy is even more impressive. The 2012 survey is a perfect example.

This then begs the obvious question… If the ASPCA has their SEO game and content strategy so dialed in, how can they possibly not have any clue about the number of pets they take in, adopt out, or euthanize?

Americans are terrified of losing their pets.

By analyzing our own web traffic we see a fair amount of visitors coming inbound in search for answers to questions such as the following:

What is the likelihood of my dog or cat ever winding up lost? 

What is the likelihood of finding my lost pet?

How can I find my lost pet?

What to do if I lose my lost pet?

How many pets are killed in shelters every year?

I at one point in 2016 had many of the same questions which is when I first came across the 2012 survey.  The results seemed to be a lot less shocking than what I expected. They were also diametrically opposing to the results reported by other sources such as the American Humane Association and the Coalition for reuniting pets and families so much so that I went back and read it again.

I then hired a team of interns to help gather what is arguably the most comprehensive analysis on the subject to date.  You can learn all about our survey including its abstract, methods, and conclusion here and I stand behind our numbers.  

It's time to hold the ASPCA accountable for their lack of data transparency. For starters, they should really just remove their pointless survey offline as it calls way too much into question regarding their overall credibility as an ethical organization.

So... what is your take on the ASPCA's lack of data transparency?

Shouldn't they be able to get a better national sample set by looking at their own data?

How can they possibley not have any idea how many pets they take in, adopt out, or euthanize?

Leave a comment.


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