When the onset of the coronavirus pandemic forced animal shelters across the country to close their doors, Americans answered the desperate calls for help by adopting and fostering pets.
Now as we head into the third year of the pandemic, a new crisis looms — so rescue advocates are hoping Americans will step up to help once again.
Adoptions have slowed, and there are 100,000 more dogs and cats in shelters than this time last year — which puts them at risk of euthanasia, according to Best Friends Animal Society. The nonprofit also found in a study last summer that 87% of shelters surveyed reported being understaffed — and the omicron variant just made the situation even worse.
Transport of pets from overcrowded shelters to areas with fewer adoptable pets has decreased — possibly because so many people are risk averse in the face of ongoing uncertainty — and pets who enter shelters are staying in longer, according to Kristen Hassen, director of the nonprofit American Pets Alive! and co-founder of Human Animal Support Services, an international collaborative of more than 8,000 animal welfare professionals that began in response to the pandemic.
Plus, kitten season — the warmer months when cats start mating and their kittens flood shelters — is just about to start.
“We really do have a perfect storm of factors happening in shelters right now,” Hassen told TODAY. “The great news is that people can solve all of this.”
There are two main ways the public can help: by getting pets out of shelters through traditional methods like fostering, adopting, volunteering and donating — and by keeping pets out of shelters in the first place.
For instance, if we see a dog running loose, instead of calling animal control or a shelter, we can take them to a veterinarian to scan for a microchip and contact the owner (if there’s no tag with a phone number to begin with). Or we can keep them in our yard and put up signs in the neighborhood or post on the neighborhood social media site Nextdoor.
“Typically you can get pets home the same day that they’re lost, so it’s not a big ask,” Hassen said. “But it’s one that makes a huge difference because 60% of animals entering shelters are lost or stray, and only about 15% of those are going home.”
If it’s no longer possible for a family to keep a pet, instead of surrendering the animal to a shelter—where there’s no way of knowing whether the pet lives or dies—she suggests finding the animal a new home.
Platforms like Rehome, Home to Home and Get Your Pet are free to people looking to rehome their pets.
Fostering will be key to weathering this crisis as well as supporting shelters in the long term, Hassen believes. To accommodate this need, she hopes shelters will increase the number of foster coordinators that connect volunteers with foster pets. She points to the successful fostering initiatives of Atlanta’s LifeLine Animal Project, which placed more than 7,200 pets in foster homes in 2020.
“I feel both massive anxiety and I feel like we can solve this,” she said. “So I don’t feel hopeless — just concerned.”