Leaders at animal shelters say they are preparing for a potential increase in surrenders related to financial challenges caused by COVID-19 job loss.
However, when the increase could happen isn’t yet known. Shelters initially anticipated seeing an increase during the time marked by high numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, but sources reported no uptick. Instead, many shelters experienced an increased interest in fostering programs.
Dr. Robin Brennen, vice president of animal health and welfare at Animal Care Centers of New York City, said the animal shelter community has been working together during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The shelter community has been really proactive,” Dr. Brennen said. “People are speaking and helping each other out.”
NYCACC rescues and finds homes for animals in New York. The organization co-created the NYC COVID-19 Pet Hotline for owners who have COVID-19–related pet questions or concerns. The hotline helped over 5,000 animals from mid-April to the end of May and has kept a large number of animals from being surrendered to the NYCACC, which had taken in only 99 animals related to COVID-19 as of press time in June, Dr. Brennen said.
Dr. Jennifer Bolser, a board member of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, said there is a general concern about a potential increase in pet relinquishments because of long-term financial challenges.
“Housing insecurity and the inability to afford general care, including food and veterinary care, are potential reasons for increased relinquishments,” she said.
More than 42 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment from mid-March to early June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the unemployment rate was 13.3% in May.
Dr. Brennen said the majority of calls to the hotline in May were related to medical issues, but the hotline is experiencing more calls about economic concerns.
“I don’t have firm data, but, anecdotally, it is starting to shift to things like, ‘I have to move, and I can’t take my pet with me.’ So, we are getting concerned,” she said.
Tiffany Lacey, president and executive director of Animal Haven, a nonprofit shelter in the Manhattan borough of New York City, said they are preparing for a potential financial-related surge, but the shelter is also dealing with kitten season.
“It is going to be a hard summer,” she said.
Lacey said shelters are facing additional challenges related to adoptions because operations have had to change to accommodate social distancing guidelines. For example, Animal Haven is not open to the public, and because potential pet owners cannot come in without an appointment, adoptions are taking longer than normal.
“The process is slow,” Lacey said. “That is one of the things we are experiencing now, and if there is an influx of animals and the process to get them out is slowed, this will be going on for a while.”
She is also concerned about animals being returned when recent adopters return to work and find they won’t be able to handle the animal anymore because their life has gone back to somewhat normal.
In preparation for potential financially related surrenders, Dr. Bolser said the shelter community is working to provide alternatives, including free pet food distribution, collaborating with housing entities and municipal leaders regarding housing regulations, providing extended shelter to pets of families in housing transition, and expanding affordable and subsidized veterinary care programs.
Some leaders are looking back at the Great Recession more than a decade ago as a potential guide to how the pandemic’s economic challenges may play out.
Alex Munoz, director of the Animal Services Department for Miami-Dade County, said shelters did not see an increase in intake immediately in 2008.
“It was a year or two years after the crisis,” Munoz said. “We saw it go up about 10% to 15%. It was pretty obvious to us, and it wasn’t just us. All shelters saw an increase around that time.”
Munoz said despite the concern of potential surrenders, shelters have a lot more tools now such as foster programs, lower animal populations, and greater community outreach.
“We’re preparing. We have pet retention programs that work to keep people and pets together,” he said. “We have a conversation during the surrender that includes a pet retention conversation and how we can help them keep their animal.”
Miami-Dade isn’t alone.
Tracy Elliott, the director of the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago, said the organization has done four specific things since March when the pandemic hit: clearing the shelter to the extent it could, taking advantage of the increase in volunteer fostering interest, providing a safe and temporary space for animals in need, and keeping its staff employed.
Elliott said the next phase is to provide more care in communities by increasing programs such as free pet food options.
“This lit a fire under an effort that was already underway,” he said. “If we provide services to pet owners, we can divert a lot of shelter intakes. Certainly, that’s a win for the family and the animal.”
Elliot said he is not optimistic the Anti-Cruelty Society will be able to avoid financially related relinquishments.
“To be realistic, we need to be prepared,” he said.
A look forward
Jill Tucker, director of the California Animal Welfare Association, said despite some concern about the economic downturn, the community is hopeful.
“The sheltering community is doing a really good job managing this bizarre situation as they go,” she said. “There is going to be a lot of good coming out of this, like engaging and embracing the community and resolving problems within the community.”
Sources reported that shelters around the U.S. have seen a general increase in community engagement and interest during the pandemic. Many shelters have been able to effectively limit the number of animals inside the shelters.
“While the rapid and forced changes encountered to navigate COVID-19 have been very challenging, it has also led to favorable innovations,” Dr. Bolser said. ”With community collaboration and support, the sheltering community is creating positive industry transformations, the silver lining to this difficult time.”
Dr. Brennen is ready for change.
“Sheltering will never go back to the way it was before,” she said. “COVID-19 has changed everything. We are going to have to come up with a different way to do things. We don’t want to go back to a place that is just a dumping ground for animals. We want to keep the human-animal bond intact more, and we have been able to do that more. Time will tell if this will be permanent.”
How veterinarians are helping
Dr. Kendall Houlihan, an assistant director in the AVMA Animal Welfare Division, said veterinarians are working to keep pets in homes by doing the following:
Working in not-for-profit clinics or programs, the primary purpose of which is to provide important medical and surgical services.
Providing pro bono services as a normal part of their private clinic’s operations.
Participating in angel funds that help pay for veterinary care, such as the American Veterinary Medical Foundation’s Veterinary Charitable Care Fund.
“We are encouraged by the implementation of community-based pet relief resources, including pet food pantries, temporary sheltering, and subsidized veterinary care for those in need, all of which are aimed at keeping pets with their families,” Dr. Houlihan said. “These charitable services can play a role in supporting animal welfare by keeping otherwise good human-animal bonds intact.”