Pandemic empties pet shelters as families add new four-legged members

Debbie LaPlaca
Baystateparent Magazine

The makeshift corner office and kitchen classroom has many quarantined families taking a fresh look at the space they call home and finding it’s the perfect time to add a little something warm and fuzzy.

An uptick in pet adoption requests since March coupled with a limited supply of animals brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic has emptied shelters and filled homes and hearts with pets.

In case you haven’t heard, pets can make your family healthier. Dogs for instance love to play and are known to move their owners toward a more active lifestyle.

The American Heart Association says dog owners are 54% more likely to get the recommended amount of exercise than non-dog owners. Further, those exposed to pet fur and dander have been shown to have stronger immune systems, which could lead to a decrease in blood-pressure and cholesterol levels. 

And if that isn’t enough, pets can also reduce stress, anxiety, depression and the sense of loneliness that many have recently experienced from isolation.

While these are compelling reasons to adopt a pet, training a puppy or acclimating an older dog is a time-consuming, hands-on commitment that typically doesn’t work for every busy family or fast-paced household.

Then came the pandemic.

Work from home and school from home meant more people at home with time to care for a new addition to the family. Add warm weather and quarantine fatigue to the mix and walking a dog becomes an attractive way to get up and out.  

Families turned to shelters in unprecedented numbers and soon Fido became the loyal co-worker, recess buddy, and warm shoulder to cry on. 

The Sterling Animal Shelter ran out of pets to adopt in March and today, hundreds of people are on its waiting list, while availability remains low.  

“It coincided with our shutdown when everything started to get crazy with COVID in March,” Kendel Burdeaux said. “A lot of our pets come from Puerto Rico and unfortunately with the transportation problems and the crazy heat this summer, it’s been too hot to transport. There was a two-month lull where we had nearly no dogs coming in.”

Yet, the demand for adoptions rapidly increased as did the waiting list. 

Sterling has received more than 2,000 applications to adopt since the end of April, which, Burdeaux says is a great problem to have at a shelter. 

“I think some of it is the circumstances of the COVID era. The increase is because people are working from home and have the time to train them,” she said. “I also think it’s the product of the culture in New England: people are very good to their pets and make a lifelong commitment.”

The shelter has been scouting for pet transportation partners in the southern states and is presently working with a transporter in Texas.

“Places in the south are drowning with animals and here where we can’t find them. We really don’t have a stray animal problem up here and we don’t see a lot of local surrenders. The requests we get here are from people who have to give up their pets,” Burdeaux said. “We are getting cats, but we are struggling with finding appropriate dogs.”

When dogs arrive, their profile is posted online, and those interested are asked to complete an online application before an appointment will be made to meet at the shelter.

Sterling recently took in 28 cats and kittens from new partners in Texas and Louisiana and they were quickly adopted.

Lindsay Doray, Development Director at Second Chance Animal Services, said the shelter has experienced numerous occasions since March when all their pets were adopted.

“We’ve had so many people waiting to adopt that we when do have pets, we don’t have them very long,” she said. “Animals are going out as fast as they are coming in.” 

Doray said they are grateful to the outpouring of adopters who have welcomed new pets into their homes. But this, combined with the limited animal transports across the U.S. at this time, means there are fewer pets available than usual.

Second Chance helps more than 40,000 pets and their families each year through adoption, spay/neuter programs, veterinary care, community outreach, educational outreach, training, and a pet food pantry.

It operates an adoption center in East Brookfield and community veterinary hospitals in North Brookfield, Springfield, and Worcester. 

Second Chance receives some cats and dogs from local owner surrenders and animal control officers, but most come from overcrowded shelters that are euthanizing for space from various locations, including the southern states.

“COVID did bring some challenges in bringing in pets, even from the overcrowded shelters for a while. Transports were shut down because nobody really knew what was going to happen with this virus,” Doray said.

Today, animals are posted on the shelter’s website when they are ready for adoption, where people are asked to submit an online adoption survey.

“We had to alter our adoption protocol and limit it to one family in the building at a time so that we could clean between families to reduce any possible risk. There are days we have a line of people waiting to come in and adopt. It has been great,” Doray said.  

The Second Chance nonprofit, full-service hospitals that offer subsidized rates for low income households have also been swamped with 2-3 times the normal call volumes for emergencies and vet appointments. Partly, Doray said, due to an increase in families financially impacted by the pandemic and due to the closure of school-based veterinary programs.

“Our pet food pantry is serving additional food pantries to help ensure that no pet goes hungry during this crisis. It has become a vital lifeline for many,” Doray said. 

To help limit people entering their buildings due to social distancing restrictions, Second Chance is offering curbside appointments, where clients pull up and staff takes the pet in to be seen. The vet then calls the client to discuss treatment. 

The financial challenges in many households due to the pandemic has also impacted shelters that survive on donations. Second Chance, for instance, has experienced a 40% decline in donations.

“We have had to postpone, limit or cancel all of our major fundraisers, as well as more than 100 mobile adoption events and small community events that we take part in,” Doray said. 

Families looking to adopt will find that fees vary.

At Sterling, the cost to adopt a standard adult dog runs from $200 to $500 depending on their circumstance, as the fees for the dogs from other states are typically higher due to transportation costs. 

Many shelters have senior dog and cat programs that are less expensive to adopt.