As people surrender pets they can’t always afford, Alaska’s shelters struggle to house them

PALMER — Shelters around Alaska are filling with pets as a complicated mix of factors including high prices, limited veterinarians and an ongoing pandemic put extraordinary pressure on the animal welfare system.

An influx of surrendered animals from owners struggling to make ends meet has pushed the Matanuska-Susitna Borough shelter beyond its capacity.

Late last week, borough animal care officials announced they were no longer taking in animals, an unusual policy they hope to reverse as soon as next week. The night drop-off door is locked. The shelter is not accepting animals surrendered by their owners during the day.

With more than 200 cats and dogs filling kennels this week, shelter officials said more animals are coming in than getting adopted out in Mat-Su, for years one of Alaska’s fastest-growing regions.

“The primary factor that we’re seeing is economic. People just cannot afford to care for their animals,” shelter director Chris Loscar said. “It keeps coming up: They can’t afford the basic care, they can’t afford veterinary care.”

Shelters and rescue organizations around Alaska and the country are reporting similar trends: people surrendering pets amid a web of challenges including more than two years of pandemic life, a veterinary shortage and inflation and high gas prices driving up costs for everything from kibble to kennels.

“It’s not a straightforward cause-effect,” said Kelly Donnelly, executive director of Alaska SPCA. “There are a lot of factors that are leading people to surrender this year that have been different than the last couple of years.”

The economy is making it hard to afford pet food and services, Donnelly said. Price inflation for pet food ran at a 7% annual rate in April, according to the US Department of Labor. The costs of veterinary services spiked to nearly 10% annually.

But pandemic isolation has also led to a generation of dogs that may have missed out on socializing skills without enough time around other dogs and people.

“They are difficult to handle in social situations. These are dogs you can’t take to the dog park. These are dogs that may be dog-aggressive,” she said. “It requires some pretty heavy-duty commitment and training and some dog owners just aren’t up to that.”

Anchorage’s animal shelter is not at capacity right now but is seeing more owner-surrendered pets, according to executive assistant Jordan Taylor.

People say they’re giving up animals for various reasons — including because they simply have too many, Taylor said, adding that may be a result of pandemic-delayed spay and neuter surgeries. There were about 440 owner surrenders as of June in 2020 and 2021 compared to 690 this year, he said. That’s also higher than in 2019, when the shelter recorded 640 surrenders by June.

“The big takeaway is the number, in general, is bigger,” Taylor said.

Juneau Animal Rescue, the private nonprofit contracted by the City and Borough of Juneau to provide shelter services, is seeing more dogs than normal and fewer people adopting, said executive director Samantha Blankenship. Some people have told her they’re reluctant to adopt more animals because of an ongoing shortage of veterinarians in Juneau.

In the past few weeks, six litters of kittens arrived at the shelter, Blankenship said. Managers are asking people to foster adult cats and kittens.

“We are still taking animals but we are really trying to navigate options before we intake animals,” such as seeing if owners struggling with behavioral issues can get help to keep their pet in the home, she said. “We have seen a lot of animals just in the past few months.”

Mat-Su shelter officials hope to bring back owner surrenders soon, possibly next week, if kennels open up through adoptions.

The facility, which is currently open for appointments only except Sundays, will add Saturdays to the mix starting this week. Shelter manager Jamie Kennedy will hold a “clear the shelter” mass adoption event starting at noon Saturday with “name your price” adoption fees.

Over time, officials hope to expand the facility, including covering outdoor kennels and creating a sled dog holding area. This week, pens held 18 huskies seized from a property in Willow.

But moving animals out of the shelter won’t necessarily help if the flood of animals keeps coming in, Loscar said. A winter event resulted in 82 adoptions, but two days later the shelter took in 36 animals in one day and hit capacity by the end of the same week.

“We adopt one out, we’re going to get five to six in the next day,” he said. “That’s just the reality of it.”

Anchorage resident Rheya DeTraglia did her part this week to reduce the dog population when she took home Peep, a sweet-tempered, small golden retriever mix with a tongue that “always hangs out just a teeny tiny bit no matter what she’s doing.”

“She literally just walked in the door and I fell in love with her,” DeTraglia said. “She walked into the room and I was like, ‘I am not leaving without this dog.’”

DeTraglia and her husband—who already have two dogs—decided to adopt from Mat-Su because of last week’s announcement.

“When they say they have to start turning away animals, that really hurts your heart,” she said.

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