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May 15, 2020

Shelters feel pressure of pandemic

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The nation’s animal shelters are straining under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic as they deal with reduced staff and volunteers in light of government safety rules to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“COVID-19 is putting an immense amount of stress on animal shelters across the country,” said Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “This is an unprecedented and ever-changing situation, and each shelter is facing unique challenges specific to its communities.”

The ASPCA is strongly encouraging members of the public in a position to help homeless animals to contact their local shelter immediately to find out what it needs, Bershadker said.

To assist animal welfare organizations and financially struggling pet owners during this crisis, the organization has launched the ASPCA COVID-19 Relief & Recovery Initiative, a $5 million response effort that will grant a minimum of $2 million to animal welfare organizations in critical need of funds and provide pet food to vulnerable pet owners through regional pet food distribution centers in several cities.

Many state and local governments are exempting animal shelters from safety orders and allowing them to remain open during the pandemic. Mindful of limiting exposure to the novel coronavirus, shelters have instituted such practices as appointment-only and call-ahead adoptions, drive-up fostering and adoptions, and online training.

While adoption and foster rates vary throughout the year, Bershadker said the ASPCA had experienced a nearly 70% increase in animals going into foster care through the organization’s New York City and Los Angeles foster programs, compared with the same time period in 2019.

“Since March 15, we have seen more than 600 people complete the online foster application for our New York City and Los Angeles foster programs,” he said. “The general expected number of foster sign-ups at this time of year is approximately 200.”

There is currently no evidence that animals can infect people with the COVID-19 virus. In fact, it appears that infected humans are a risk to certain animal species. In most instances of animals that have tested positive for the virus—two dogs, four cats, and a captive tiger and lion—the animals had been exposed to a person sick with COVID-19 (see story).

Out of an abundance of caution, the AVMA—in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the shelter medicine community—published recommendations for the shelter community in March concerning the intake of pets from homes where a person with COVID-19 is present. Key recommendations from the guidelines include:

  • Stay safe if collecting animals from sick people’s homes.
  • Use gloves and reusable personal protective equipment (gowns, coveralls, and footwear).
  • Bathing of the animals is not necessary.
  • House exposed animals separately from the general animal population.
  • Allow dogs to be walked outside for exercise and elimination.
  • Limit close contact with humans.
  • Avoid direct contact with other animals.
  • Sanitize as usually recommended; spot cleaning is preferred.
  • Once in shelter, hold for 14 days prior to adoption or foster.

During an April 2 webinar on the guidelines, Dr. Sandra Newbury, head of the Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, encouraged pet owners to treat their animal companions the same as any family member by preventing their exposure to people infected with the COVID-19 virus.

“There is no evidence that pets play an epidemiological role in this pandemic,” Dr. Newbury said, “and it’s essential that people protect their pets from the virus.”


The “Interim recommendations for intake of companion animals from households where humans with COVID-19 are present” are available online at jav.ma/shel19. An AVMA Axon webinar about the interim recommendations and how they help address human health, animal health, and animal welfare needs during the COVID-19 pandemic is available for free at jav.ma/webinar.