Pet relinquishment occurs when caretakers of companion animals voluntarily give up their pets—it is a broad term that includes the behavior of surrendering pets to a third party, abandoning them on their own, or euthanizing them [1
]. The relinquishment of owned pets, along with the birth of unwanted litters, fills shelters and municipal pounds with animals and create an overpopulation problem [2
]. Interventions to prevent pet relinquishment are few and lack appropriate tools to measure their effectiveness [1
In Portugal, data on pet relinquishment is scarce and underreported [8
]. The few official reports published by municipal pounds estimate an alarming 22% yearly increase in pet surrenders [9
]. Adding to the overpopulation problem, since September 2018 culling became illegal in Portugal, such that municipal pounds are no longer allowed to kill pets as a population control measure [10
]. Hence, the population of pets in municipal pounds and animal shelters throughout the country is expected to rise uncontrollably [8
]. Efforts to prevent relinquishment in Portugal often include anti-abandonment campaigns, usually rolled out in different media outlets and by different organizations in the beginning of the summer. These campaigns seem to convey a message of responsible ownership and to morally condemn abandonment, possibly aiming to develop stronger attitudes against pet relinquishment as a deterrent of the behavior [11
]. Contrary to popular beliefs, however, pet relinquishment is largely stable throughout the year (with the exception of kitten surrenders that are concentrated in the birth season), and holiday-related issues are not frequently reported as reasons for giving up a pet [18
] putting into question the timing and angle of the summer campaigns. Furthermore, although studies of efficacy are lacking, these campaigns are likely not reaching their goals of preventing pet abandonment, because the number of surrenders to Portuguese municipal pounds and shelters is still increasing rather than decreasing [19
]. Following this, we hypothesize that attitudes might not be changing toward a responsible view on pet ownership, or that these attitudes are not preventing actual pet relinquishment behavior. Hence, we took a step back with the aim of understanding pet relinquishment attitudes to a greater extent, and how these attitudes are correlated with actual relinquishment behavior.
Research on pet relinquishment seems to be gradually moving toward a social and psychological perspective on the issue. This framing is likely a reflection of the greater importance that the human-animal relationship is assuming in our society, and the value of understanding human factors (rather than animal ones) to explain failed human-animal relationships [20
]. Research shows that lacking knowledge about pets—often related with the lack of previous experience in pet caretaking—is among the most reliable predictors of pet relinquishment [2
]. Indeed, people with knowledge deficits about pets tend to develop unrealistic expectations about pet ownership and typical animal behaviors, and tend to be less able to solve problems that arise from their pet’s behavior [20
]. Unrealistic expectations can also lead to relinquishment when people expect the relationship with the pet to stabilize after adoption much quicker than it does [27
], to expect the amount of work it takes to care for a pet to be less than it really is [28
], and to expect the pet to play an unreasonable role in the family—e.g., expecting the pet to keep children busy or to teach them sensitivity and nurturance [23
]. Changes of lifestyle during pet ownership can also be a risk factor for relinquishment, be it the addition of new members to the household [26
], or moving, housing restrictions, and landlord issues (which are reported as one of the top pet relinquishment reasons [3
]). The lack of pet care and investment in the relationship is another variable identified as a predictor of pet relinquishment, as it concerns failing to seek veterinary services, behavior classes, or other forms of professional advice [28
Research also shows the importance of contextual and individual differences to understand pet relinquishment. For example, the composition of the household has long been discussed as an important factor, but often with contradictory results. Marinelli et al. [35
] found that the level of care for the dog decreases if the household is more than one person, or more than one dog. In contrast, Meyer and Forkman [36
] found that the emotional closeness of the owner to the dog was positively associated with owning more than one dog. Having children in the household has been shown to decrease owner’s attachment to their pet [35
], and is often a source of incompatibility with the pet’s behavior [27
], and correlates with relinquishment behavior [23
]. Regarding individual variables, research showed that men are more likely to relinquish their pets [2
], but Salman et al. [32
] found that women relinquish cats more often. Also, there is a lower incidence of pet relinquishment among older people [2
], and among those with higher education levels [2
]. Income or economic status are not associated with differences in the human-animal relationship [35
], but lower income has been associated with greater risk of pet relinquishment [28
]. Concerning religion, a study in Taiwan found a link between different faiths and relinquishment, with Christians (Western religions) more likely to admit having relinquished a dog, than atheists or followers of traditional Asian religions [38
]. Overall, human-animal studies have commented on religion’s conservatism being associated with a more utilitarian treatment of animals, which is rooted in a sense of lesser moral value attributed to non-human animals, mainly in the Judaic/Christian beliefs [39
]. General conservatism as a political orientation has not been linked to pet relinquishment, but it does impact the moral judgment of animals [41
] by considering animals as less moral than humans [42
]. Furthermore, animal rights activists do tend to be politically liberal [43
The level of trust in animals is another variable of interest in human-animal studies. Trust in animals was essential for the domestication of pets [44
] and continues to be an important basis of human-animal relationships [45
]. Animals are expected to provide companionship and humans to provide care in a cooperative relationship, where mutual trust implies shared risks and rewards, and the break of this trust is the break of the relationship [46
]. In human–human intimate relationships, trust is extremely important for the success of the relationship, and is dependent upon previous knowledge of the other and previous expectations of their behavior [47
]. To the extent that successful human-animal relationships are based on trust [50
], it is likely that trust in pets is a key variable reliably associated with pet relinquishment.
Despite the growing body of research on pet relinquishment, studies on attitudes toward this behavior are still lacking. Studying attitudes is important to understand pet relinquishment, as the theory of planned behavior [51
] reliably shows that attitudes predict behavioral intentions and these, in turn, predict actual behavior in different domains such as condom use [52
], smoking [53
], and alcohol consumption [54
]. In human-animal relationships, several studies have also supported this theory in different attitude–behavior correlations such as responsible pet ownership practices [55
], dog obesity treatment [57
], and sterilization practices [58
To our knowledge, there are only two studies focusing on attitudes toward pet relinquishment, and both were aimed at developing reliable measures to inform and evaluate the efficacy of pet relinquishment interventions. These studies are particularly relevant because they were conducted in countries with strong ties to Portugal, where people’s perception of pets is likely to be similar. In Brazil, Baquero et al. [59
] conducted a population-based questionnaire in an urban area to characterize public opinions and attitudes toward pet relinquishment in hypothetical problem situations. Participants were asked to consider different problematic behaviors (e.g., destroying things, biting, being very disobedient, etc.), select what they believed the owner would do concerning the pet’s fate (e.g., abandon the pet, give the pet to someone else, try to find a solution, or other), and to answer whether they had any reason to abandon their own pet. Results showed that only 9.6% of the participants expressed possible reasons to abandon their own pet, but over-estimated that other people would. Indeed, when asked about what was the fate of other people’s pets, abandonment was the most frequent answer (16% for cats, 17.3% for dogs, and 39.3% for puppies and kittens). The study also found that most people who considered pet abandonment as a possible outcome were not pet owners. According to the authors, this could be explained by pet owners having more positive attitudes toward pets. For example, pet owners should have higher tolerance toward animals and be more likely to avoid relinquishment. One limitation of this study, however, was that participants did not indicate if they had relinquished a pet in the past. Consequently, the authors were unable to examine whether or not attitudes toward pet relinquishment were associated with the likelihood of actual pet relinquishment behavior.
The other study was conducted in Spain by Mazas et al. [60
], and aimed at informing educational and training strategies in the development of positive and respectful attitudes toward animal welfare. The authors developed a scale to monitor attitude changes throughout time, or after a specific intervention. The attitudes-toward-animal-welfare (AWA) scale has four components: (1) Animal abuse for pleasure or due to ignorance, assessing attitudes toward certain type of treatment given to animals, e.g., “I sometimes have fun chasing animals.” (2) Leisure with animals, assessing attitudes toward the use of animals in shows, festivals or other recreational activities, e.g., “Bulls are brave animals; their goal is to die in bullrings.” (3) Farm animals, assessing attitudes toward ways of life of animals on farms, during transport and at slaughterhouses, e.g., “Farm animals should be kept in cages so that they can be easily managed.” (4) Animal abandonment, assessing attitudes toward abandoning animals under one’s care, with special reference to pets, e.g., “Abandoned animals feel free.” Results with a sample of 1007 Spanish adolescents and young adults (12–25 years old) showed that women and more educated people had more positive attitudes toward animal welfare (i.e., lower scores on all components of the scale). Moreover, a comparison between the four components showed that participants had the lowest scores on the animal abuse for pleasure and due to ignorance component, and on the animal abandonment component. In other words, participants had more positive attitudes toward preventing animal abuse and animal abandonment.
Studying attitudes may be helpful to explain the complexity of pet relinquishment behavior and to develop new tools to advance this field of research. The aims of this article were threefold. First, as a foundation to our study, we aimed to build and validate a set of scales that reliably assess general trust in pets, motives for relinquishment and owner perceptions of their pet, and attitudes toward pet relinquishment—three important psychological constructs that had been understudied in this field of research. Secondly, we aimed to analyze correlates of attitudes toward pet relinquishment. Specifically, we examined the extent to which psychological variables—such as attitudes toward pet relinquishment, general trust in pets, motives for relinquishment, and owner perceptions of their pet—added explanatory power over the demographic variables—such as gender, education, income, age, political orientation, religion, and household composition. Thirdly, we aimed to show that attitudes are essential to understand actual pet relinquishment behavior by testing the correlation between attitudes and relinquishment behavior.
Our study aimed to understand attitudes toward pet relinquishment and the variables associated with it, and how these attitudes are likely to predict actual pet relinquishment behavior in a Portuguese sample. Results from a cross-sectional study showed that the more people agreed with attitudes of lack of obligation toward pet relinquishment, the more they tended to see their pet as a burden and to generally distrust pets. Arguably, these two perceptions of the pet might hinder the human-animal relationship, are likely associated with a lack of knowledge about animals (i.e., a disability in overcoming the hurdles of pet ownership), and can lead to a divestment of responsibility toward the pet [20
]. Results also showed that age was positively associated with lack of obligation attitudes. This goes against the available data from older studies in North America showing that pet relinquishment is less likely for older people [2
]. Our results may be explained by older generations being less affected by the greater involvement in pet caretaking observed in younger generations, by experiencing lower pet companionship [65
] and, the continuity of their parents’ attitudes, an older generation with different cultural norms that did not welcome pets inside their homes [66
Regarding attitudes of pragmatism toward pet relinquishment, results showed that the more people agree with these attitudes, the more they tend to perceive their pet as a burden, distrust pets and agree with motives for relinquishment (both human and animal related). These three variables point toward the existence of problems in the participant’s relationship with their pets [67
], and if a person has experienced difficulties in the human-animal relationship, they are more likely to better understand and sympathize with the circumstances that could lead up to relinquishment, thus viewing the act as justifiable under some circumstances. Being the main caretaker of the pet was also associated with the pragmatism toward pet relinquishment attitude. This is possibly due to owners’ previous knowledge and past experience with pet care that enables them to understand the demands and pitfalls of that responsibility [68
] and to recognize that there are circumstances under which people are prone to relinquish their pets. Lastly, our results showed that men have stronger pragmatism attitudes, and this aligns with previous studies that show men to be more likely to relinquish their pets (especially dogs [2
When we looked at the associations between these two attitudinal components and actual pet relinquishment, we found that agreeing with lack of obligation toward pet relinquishment was not associated with a greater likelihood of actual pet relinquishment behavior in the past. Considering that this factor conveys a sense of responsibility and moral duty toward keeping one’s pet, this finding suggests that appealing to these values might not be an effective strategy to prevent relinquishment. According to Guttman and Ressler [69
], appeals to personal responsibility lack efficacy in communication campaigns because instead of empowering individuals by encouraging them toward social transformation, they are an attribution of blame that serves as an obstacle and contributes to stigmatizing those whose behavior the campaigners are trying to impact. Therefore, we argue that a sense of responsibility and moral duty toward keeping one’s pet should not be a central message to convey in anti-abandonment campaigns.
In contrast, agreeing with pragmatism toward pet relinquishment was associated with a greater likelihood of actual pet relinquishment behavior. This finding is possibly explained by the use of justifications to deal with the discomfort of having to relinquish a pet. The effects of the decision to give up one’s pet have long been found to be more complex and legitimate than generally believed, showing that people struggle with making the decision for a long time while tolerating difficult situations and trying to fix them [67
]. The cognitive conflict of deciding how to proceed causes them to experience guilt and regret, and once decided, they value the outcome as better than other scenarios and they see it as inevitable and justified [27
]. This finding is particularly relevant because it suggests that actual relinquishment is viewed as a pragmatic and justifiable behavior under some circumstances, as opposed to it just being a consequence of lack of obligation toward the pet.
In addition, in the present article we presented three new scales to measure attitudes toward pet relinquishment (ATPR scale), motives for pet relinquishment (MPR scale), and general trust in pets (GTP scale) with overall good psychometric quality. Our findings showed that the ATPR scale reliably measured attitudes of lack of obligation toward pet relinquishment and attitudes of pragmatism toward pet relinquishment. We also found that the general trust scale used by Yamagishi and Yamagishi (1994) in interpersonal human relationships translated well into human-animal relationships. The GTP scale was a core correlate of attitudes toward pet relinquishment in both the lack of obligation and pragmatism dimensions of the ATPR scale, despite not predicting actual pet relinquishment behavior. The MPR scale was found to be a strong correlate of the pragmatism toward pet relinquishment attitude, particularly in the human-related MPR dimension. Comparing the two dimensions of the scale, the human one explained more variance, better results, and more agreement than the animal-related MPR dimension. Agreeing with motives for pet relinquishment, however, was associated with the pragmatism toward pet relinquishment attitude, but not with the lack of obligation toward pet relinquishment attitude.
Interestingly, results showed that most demographic variables were not associated with attitudes toward pet relinquishment—with the exception of gender and age—, or with actual pet relinquishment in the past—with the exception of gender. Previous experience with animals (or the lack of it), contrary to what was found in older literature [2
], was also weakly or non-significantly associated with attitudes toward pet relinquishment or actual pet relinquishment behavior.
These scales might be further explored to inform the development of a pre-adoption triage tool for shelters and municipal pounds. Assessing the attitudes of adoption candidates toward pet relinquishment (also measuring motives for pet relinquishment and general trust in pets) may be useful in identifying pet relinquishment risk, and therefore reinforcing individual adoption counseling and assistance. These scales can also be useful to pre- and post-test the impact of interventions—such as anti-abandonment campaigns. For these ends, additional validation in representative samples is needed.
Limitations and Future Research Directions
As a convenience sample of online Portuguese speakers, our findings are not representative of the Portuguese population. Also, due to the recruitment process, our sample derived mostly from the researchers’ extended network that is biased toward people concerned with animal welfare issues, likely providing less participants that have previously relinquished their pet and tending toward a more favorable human-animal relationship. Notwithstanding, the percentage of participants who reported to have relinquished a pet in the past (14.4%) is aligned with previous international literature (14.7% [71
], 15.2% [24
], and 18.8% [72
]). Hence, we argue that our findings are ecologically valid and useful to begin exploring the attitudes of the Portuguese population toward pet relinquishment, and how to help prevent it.
In the different languages of the reviewed literature, the definition of the terms relinquishment and abandonment is not always clear. Although it is agreed by most research that relinquishment is a broader term that encompasses giving up one’s pet through surrender, abandonment, or euthanasia, most Portuguese, Spanish, and Brazilian studies use the term abandonment with this broad meaning. Our approach to this issue in the current study was to adopt the word relinquishment as the broader term, but to also preserve the term abandonment whenever it was the word used in the research materials.
Future research should seek to further explore the ATPR scale, to extend its applicability across different contexts. Samples that include more people who have relinquished a pet in the past should be considered in the recruitment strategy of future studies on pet relinquishment attitudes. Besides previous experience with pets, previous knowledge about pets was identified in the existing literature as a variable of interest in predicting pet relinquishment [2
] and, therefore, developing a measurement to assess it and testing it as a predictor of pet relinquishment attitudes should be explored. Considering that psychological variables were found to be such important correlates of pet relinquishment behavior, further research on this topic should explore other well-established constructs of the social psychology field such as the Investment Model [73
], and extending interpersonal relationships processes to the study of human-animal relationships.