During the pandemic, millions of people adopted pets. Animal shelters are currently overburdened with surrendered or abandoned pets.
South Salt Lake Animal Services supervisor Jenica Laws plays with a dog at the shelter on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Animal shelters are seeing more pets being dropped off. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)
Across the state, animal shelters are at or near capacity, with stray or surrendered cats and dogs arriving quicker than shelters can find new homes.
According to animal services supervisor Jenica Laws, South Salt Lake Animal Services usually only had one or two dogs in their facility at any given time last year. The shelter currently has 22 residents.
We look after them very well, Laws added. They get outside as much as we can let them out, but... having so many animals may be daunting at times.
The problem is pervasive throughout the sector, putting a strain on current resources at shelters and adding to the workload of those responsible for animal care. Shelters frequently need overtime shifts and multitasking, and they frequently rely on administrative staff or volunteers to keep up with adequate cleaning and hygiene.
Previously, shelters and rescue organizations were able to share the burden by sending animals back and forth when one institution became overburdened. Due to the high numbers across the board, this is no longer the case.
Why is there such a large number of animals?
It's difficult to pinpoint a single cause, but animal rights activists point to the COVID-19 pandemic as a major contributor.
According to a 2021 report by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, nearly 1 in 5 families welcomed a dog or cat during the first year of the pandemic. The investigation found no indication that these pandemic pets caused a nationwide rise in owner surrenders, but the pandemic's effects don't stop there.
Veterinarians, trainers, and doggy day cares were forced to cut back their operations at the same time that millions of Americans were looking for a new pet. As a result, a generation of pets will be raised without standard training and may be more likely to act out when scared or confused.
Melanie Bennett, director of animal services for the West Valley City Animal Shelter, said, "I think right now we're all stuck in the same boat of being full. We've been able to move things so quickly in the last few years, and this year, all the brakes are on.
It's weird because when COVID hit and everyone was at home, we were really pulling from other shelters because we were so empty, she continued. I'm not sure why, but everything started to open up, and we can't bring them home or find somebody to adopt them.
Many dogs have developed separation anxiety as a result of the so-called "return to normalcy, according to Laws, after being left alone for the first time.
When everyone returned to work, the dogs didn't comprehend what was going on and developed separation anxiety, which led to them becoming a little destructive or escaping the yard and whining and crying all the time, she explained. As a result, folks were getting a little frustrated and bringing them to the shelter.
However, Laws claims that doing so causes the dogs to suffer even more turbulence, potentially increasing their anxiety and behavioural issues.
They don't have the comforts of home," she explained, they don't have that couch to curl up on or that someone to cuddle with. Putting them in a kennel with a bunch of noisy barking dogs can be uncomfortable for an animal and heighten their nervousness, she says.
These dogs are less likely to be adopted and are frequently referred to a rescue organization where they can work with a trainer to help them acclimatize. Shelters rely on rotating through animals on a regular basis, and when a few canines with behavioral issues are continually turned down for adoption, it can clog the system.
According to Laws, most animals require a "permanent home" where they may be comfortable and stable.
I believe that if more people wanted to spend time with their animals and train with them, we could solve a lot of problems, she stated.
The cycle just keeps repeating itself.
According to Rachel Gitlin, president of Community Animal Welfare Society, or CAWS, spaying and neutering remains one of the most tried-and-true strategies to curb overpopulation — especially among cats — but the surgery may be costly and is often disregarded by pet owners.
A single cat can cost up to $300 to fix, and many of the NGOs that offer less expensive solutions have remained closed during the outbreak. When you consider that cats can have kittens as young as four months old and have a 68-day gestation period, it's easy to see how owners can grow overwhelmed.
There's no way you could spend $250 for nine cats if your cat had (nine) kittens, Gitlin added. "Even folks who genuinely want to provide the best love and care for these creatures — which they do in many ways — are baffled when it comes to veterinary treatment."
Even planned pregnancies can go awry, leaving owners with little choice except to surrender litters to shelters or donate them to friends or family.
People will post on Facebook sites saying, Hey, I'd like my cat to have a litter of kittens so my children can witness the miracle of birth,' but they have no strategy for what happens after that, Gitlin explained. Many times, those kittens are adopted by people who do the same things, and the cycle continues.
Shelters sterilize animals and microchip them for identification, but they can't always keep up with the steady influx of animals.
What's strange is that everything we adopt out is sterilized and microchipped, but everything coming in the back isn't," Bennett explained. We have no idea what's going on.
Medical expenses are still one of the most costly components of pet ownership, and rising inflation may make paying for a veterinarian even more difficult for some owners. According to Gitlin, veterinarians are likewise in low supply, forcing owners to wait weeks or months for critical medical care.
We actually have a very high percentage of burnout among veterinarians," she explained, "because it's a pretty freaking hard profession to be in. A lot of individuals are putting off dealing with problems until they become emergencies."
The hardship of the work is supported by research: a 2018 study indicated that veterinarians are up to 3.5 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide.
What comes next?
Animal caregivers in no-kill shelters and rescues are adamant that they will go to any length to care for surrendered or abandoned animals.
When asked how she would handle the arrival of more animals than the shelter can accommodate, Laws answered, I wouldn't turn them down. We'll make certain they have a home or are rescued.
Bennett shares this sentiment, even if it involves relocating animals to shelters outside of Utah. Shelters can employ smaller transport kennels as overflow room, but that hasn't happened yet, according to Laws.
In the long run, however, the current approach of relying on well-intentioned volunteers and adopters is considered as untenable. Donations of money or discounted services can only go so far, according to Gitlin, and it's not a problem that will be handled by placing weight on individuals.
She'd like to see the government do more to help by subsidizing veterinarian care, but she's not optimistic after the Legislature failed to enact a measure that would restrict communities from regulating "puppy mills" and other controversial activities. The bill was passed by the Utah House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate.
They were attempting to get rid of the ability to ban those items because they were irritated by the 'animal welfare people infringing on our rights, Gitlin explained. It'd be great if they wanted to set aside money for reasonable fixes, but I'm not sure they're willing to do that.
For the time being, shelters must rely on a patchwork of volunteers, donations, and — probably most significantly — people prepared to provide subsidized repairs and other medical services, often on their own dime.
Gitlin said, They're (expletive) saints. It's just because they care about the animals.