Animal shelters face a potentially fatal pet adoption crisis

Animal shelters face a potentially fatal pet adoption crisis

The “pandemic pet” boom that captured headlines and the public imagination may have been more anecdote than fact, at least for the animal rescue community: Dog and cat adoptions actually declined in 2020. 

But the post-pandemic shelter crisis of 2022 looks very real. 

Shelters around the nation are packed to furry capacity. Animal rescues are understaffed, workers overwhelmed. Adoptions are lagging as a procession of families surrender dogs and cats they can no longer keep.  

Why? Animal advocates cite the decline of virtual work, a national housing shortage and the rising cost of kibble, among other factors. 

In the first nine months of 2022, more animals entered shelters than left them by a margin of 7.3 percent, according to a report by the nonprofit Shelter Animals Count. The figure represents 77,000 stranded pets, and it covers only a fraction of the national shelter community.  

By one industry estimate, the number of cats and dogs facing possible euthanasia stands 100,000 higher this year than last. 

“Nobody’s job description should have killing animals as one of the things on the list,” said Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society, a Utah nonprofit that operates the nation’s largest sanctuary for homeless animals. 

Desperate pleas from overtaxed animal rescue workers have made headlines across the nation.  

New York’s municipal shelter system has seen a 25-percent increase in surrendered pets, a trend driven by rent inflation and pet-averse landlords.   

An Atlanta shelter designed to hold 80 animals has been running nearly 300 dogs over capacity. Another in Montgomery County, Texas, has housed more than 400 dogs in space designed to hold 180. At an overcrowded facility in nearby Brazoria County, “we’ve started stacking crates in the bathroom,” a shelter worker told the Austin American Statesman.   

The national shelter crisis arose from a cruel calculus of supply and demand in an industry that relies on a steady stream of pet adopters to take animals other families give up.  

Shelter intakes are up 8 percent for dogs and 1 percent for cats through September compared to 2021, according to Shelter Animals Count.  

Last year wasn’t very good in the pet adoption business, either. Total shelter admissions rose 6 percent from 2020 to 2021. More animals were admitted than adopted. 

Overflowing shelters have fed a national narrative of fickle owners returning pandemic pets. That is neither entirely true nor particularly fair, animal rights advocates say. 

A 2021 survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that most households that acquired pets during the COVID-19 pandemic still had them a year later.  

People who did part with their pets often cited a housing change, typically to a residence that did not allow pets, or a job change that left them unable to properly care for the animal. 

“And it’s heartbreaking,” said Christa Chadwick, vice president for shelter services at ASPCA. “When you’re in a position where you have to choose a house or your pet, no one makes that decision lightly or easily.” 

The pandemic pet phenomenon, often discussed as the source of the present crisis, may have been overstated.  

The idea of a mass adoption event, triggered by COVID isolation and loneliness, emerged as a pandemic subtopic in 2020. Many reports of a pandemic pet boom circle back to the 2021 ASPCA survey, which reported that nearly one in five U.S. households had adopted a dog or cat during the pandemic. 

If the figure is correct, it didn’t move the needle very far in overall pet ownership. A National Pet Owner Survey by the American Pet Products Association found that 70 percent of U.S. households owned pets in 2021, up from 67 percent in pre-pandemic 2019: a scant increase.   

Ironically, animal shelters saw a 20-percent drop in adoptions and other “outcomes” from 2019 to 2020, according to Shelter Animals Count, which maintains a national database. Shelters also admitted many fewer animals in 2020.  

“Everybody says 2020 was such a good year for animal shelters, and really it wasn’t,” said Stephanie Filer, executive director of Shelter Animals Count. 

Families clamored to adopt pets in the early months of the pandemic. But many shelters were closed, and adoption-ready pets ran short.  

Millions of families looked elsewhere, acquiring pets from neighbors and friends, breeders and pet stores. One ASPCA survey suggests only 23 percent of the nation’s current population of dogs, and 31 percent of its collective cats, reached American homes via shelters.  

The animal adoption crisis is less about unwanted pandemic pets, animal advocates say, and more about the post-pandemic economy and societal shifts.  

Shelters have faced a chronic shortage of staff and volunteers since the early months of the pandemic. The pet adoption market is sluggish.  

Potential adopters have worried about spiraling costs of food and veterinary care in a year of 8- and 9-percent inflation, and about remote-work privileges evaporating. 

“People are concerned about bringing a new family member into the household because of the economy,” Castle said. “We’re seeing this in every corner of the country.” 

In years past, animal welfare agencies mobilized to transport pets from overcrowded shelters to facilities with space, a migration that has often moved animals from South to North.   

“Those shelters are all full now,” Castle said. 

With nowhere else to go, thousands of pets may go to their doom. Animal workers fear 2022 may mark the second year of retreat in the national campaign to end animal euthanasia.  

“We made a commitment in 2016 that we were going to take the country to no-kill by 2025,” Castle said. In the following year, the number of animals killed in shelters dropped from 2 million to 1.5 million. 

The no-kill movement scored victories for five consecutive years, reducing the annual euthanasia total to 347,000 in 2020. The “save rate” of shelter animals rose from 64 percent to 83 percent in that span. 

In 2021, however, euthanasia totals rose anew, reaching 355,000. 

Castle and others fear the figure will rise higher in 2022. Shelter data analyzed by the Best Friends nonprofit in January suggest that roughly 60,000 more dogs and 40,000 more cats sat in shelters than one year earlier. Eleven months later, the numbers are probably larger. 

“There are some shelters where they are having to make decisions they haven’t had to make in a long time, around euthanasia,” Chadwick said.  

Some shelter workers say they have never seen such overcrowding. Comparisons with past years are tricky, because the Shelter Animals Count database goes back only to 2016.  

But the current adoption crisis is, without question, the worst the national shelter system has seen in recent years.  

Filer’s nonprofit uses simple division to gauge whether the nation’s shelter population is growing or shrinking, comparing the number of animals that enter and exit the system.  

In the first nine months of pre-pandemic 2019, roughly 3 percent of animals that entered shelters remained there. In 2020, when pet adoption passions ran high, the “adoption gap” narrowed to 1 percent. Through the first nine months of 2022, the gap stands at 7.3 percent.  

“Ideally, what we want is more pets going out than coming in,” Chadwick said. “We don’t want them to be equal.”

Looking for a way to help alleviate the pet-adoption crisis? Here are six options to consider.

Animal shelters face a potentially fatal pet adoption crisis

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