Times are tough, but your local shelter can help.

By Austin Cannon
November 04, 2020
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Credit: LifeLine Animal Project

The butterfly effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has reached our pets. Sometimes, it’s been a good thing: People are working from home and getting to spend more time with their pets, and more people are adopting pets than maybe ever before.

Then there are the ways the pandemic is prying pets and owners apart. Notably, job or housing losses are forcing people to give up their cats and dogs, even leading to one case of a dog being left tied to a tree with a note.  

The ASPCA says the pandemic is responsible for dragging more than 4 million pets into poverty since February. And if more people lose their jobs—currently, the U.S. unemployment rate sits at 7.9 percent—pet parents could be faced with a horrendous choice: Do I keep my dog or cat or do I fix my car, make my rent payment?

That’s where animal shelters like LifeLine Animal Project in Atlanta, the KC Pet Project, and Pasadena Humane have stepped in and stepped up. Across the country, they’re providing free pet food, additional foster opportunities, and free or low-cost vet services. In short, they’re doing everything they can to keep pets out of the shelter and with their humans.

“We’re a social service,” says Tori Fugate, chief communications officer for the KC Pet Project.

While pet surrenders aren’t up universally across the country, Fugate says that in her area owner relinquishments are “way up compared to what it has been in the past.” More than 300 pets were surrendered to KC Pet Project, an open admissions shelter, in September. Several of the reasons Kansas City residents cite for giving up their pets are related to the pandemic, including the inability to afford the pet and moving to a new home. 

“All these families are going to be separated from their pets that they love and we want to be able to prevent that,” Fugate says.

Animal Shelters Doing More

There’s one main thing you should do if you find yourself in a situation where you might have to give up your pet: Contact your local shelter or pet nonprofit. Many of them have programs to help you keep your pet or place it in temporary care elsewhere. 

Fees can be waived. Low-cost vet clinics can provide care. Foster families can take in your pets for a bit. Some shelters have pet food pantries you can visit. 

That’s one of the ways Pasadena Humane has been able to help pet owners in its jurisdiction. Back in June, the ASPCA donated a honking 25 tons of pet food to the Pasadena shelter’s food pantry. More donations from the public soon followed, says Dia DuVernet, Pasadena Humane’s president and CEO. 

That’s come in handy because about twice as many families are taking advantage of the pet food pantry than in normal times, DuVernet says. Pasadena’s adoption rates remain high, and she’s seen a 50 percent decrease in the number of pets surrendered to the shelter, a credit to all the work she and her staff are doing to keep pets with their owners. 

The ASPCA also launched a $5 million COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Initiative to help pets and their owners in need; $2 million worth of grant money is being directed to some 50 animal welfare organizations across the country. Additionally, the society has sent more than 1,800 tons of pet food to distribution centers in several cities. 

“We can all make a difference and save lives, whether you’re a national organization providing food and support, a shelter experimenting with new ways to rehome their residents, a veterinarian embracing innovations to accommodate more patients, or a family making room in their hearts and homes for a new pet,” Matt Bershadker, ASPCA president and CEO, writes to Daily Paws.  

Along with the food pantry, Pasadena Humane is also offering temporary boarding services for people going through a crisis—like if they’re sick. Extra grant funding has helped both that program and the food pantry. 

“We’re having great success in having pets coming into the shelter as a very last resort, which is what it really should be,” DuVernet says. 

KC Pet Project has handed out thousands of pounds of food as well, Fugate says. It’s also reduced or eliminated the price of vaccinations and procedures, saving owners $3,949.13 in September. And while pet surrenders are higher than normal, so do adoptions and fosters.

“Pets are just flying out of here,” Fugate says.

LifeLine is reducing the cost of some pet care, even waiving the costs of some surgeries, says Karen Hirsch, the public relations director for LifeLine. Through its Pets for Life program, shelter staff members visit some of Atlanta's poorest areas to provide pet food, spay and neuter procedures, vaccinations, and pet supplies all for free. That’s part of why Hirsch thinks LifeLine has seen fewer surrenders by owners.

“We don’t feel like you should have to put a price tag on love,” she says. “You should be able to have a pet if you want a pet.”   

LifeLine Animal Project staff.
| Credit: LifeLine Animal Project

Effect of the Eviction Moratorium

Besides being unable to afford pet food and care, one primary reason families in crisis need to rehome their pets is because they have been evicted or are moving for other financial reasons. Finding a new living situation can be especially hard if a person needs pet-friendly accommodations. 

“If they’re evicted from their home, the chances of them finding places for them and their pet in a short amount of time is very limited,” Fugate says.

Back in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention halted evictions for certain Americans through the end of the year, hopefully preventing an increase in homeless Americans and the spread of COVID-19. (However, thousands of evictions are still taking place around the country.)   

As the moratorium period ends, the potential housing crisis could leave some 30-40 million people out of their homes. For example, if only 20 percent of those 30 million people have pets, that’s 6 million pets without homes, too. 

In preparation, Fugate’s KC Pet Project has worked with KC Tenants, a group of organizers pressing local government for housing relief, to raise awareness about what the expiration of the moratorium could do to people and their pets. 

In Boston, the Animal Rescue League will absorb pets into its foster system for up to 120 days if their owners are without a home. Lifeline and KC Pet Project are planning similar contingencies. 

DuVernet, the president and CEO of Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA, echoed her colleagues’ concerns of what could happen if the moratorium expires and more people enter pandemic-related economic uncertainty. 

“I think if we see more people in economic distress and if we see more people evicted from their housing, so I think we will see [surrenders] go up,” she says.

Fugate agrees, saying her shelter will “absolutely” see pet surrenders go up if the moratorium ends. 

Hirsch is optimistic her shelter will continue to be able to keep pets and their owners together. Even before the pandemic, LifeLine was able to talk with property managers about pets they would allow and provided a list of pet-friendly living spaces to people looking for a new home.

Recently, LifeLine was able to keep a homeless woman’s dog while she entered transitional housing that didn’t allow for pets. It was even able to cure the dog’s case of worms and reunite the two once the woman secured stable housing. Anything to keep people and their pets together. 

“Pets are family to so many people, and in many cases they’re all the family people have,” Hirsch says.