America’s Animal Shelters are in Crisis. 6 Things You Need to Know

Just before Christmas, the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter in Texas announced they would be forced to reduce services and stop the non-emergency intake of pets through December 31. The reason? A new wave of COVID infections led to severe understaffing. There are simply not enough people to take in and care for the pets in the shelter. 

On top of this crisis, the shelter has been at or above capacity for months, due to sluggish adoption numbers and more pets coming into the shelter—both impacts of the pandemic. 

A full shelter, a bare-bones staff, and fewer people coming to adopt add up to a perfect storm for pets who end up in the shelter.

All over the country, the story is the same.

It only takes a quick online search to find shelter after shelter, all across the country—Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma, California, and Texas, just to point to a few—each struggling with high numbers of pets during the time of the year that is typically a time to celebrate empty kennels and happy holiday pet adoption stories.

Today, around the United States, things look dire for the pets in shelters and the people who care for them. 

Here are six things happening in animal shelters nationwide that everyone needs to know—and how you can make a difference at the moment it matters the most.

1. The numbers look bad.

The most recent data from PetPoint, one of the largest animal shelter software providers, shows troubling trends. Adoptions are slowing down and fewer pets are finding new homes. Transfers to rescue group partners, historically a hugely important lifesaving pathway for pets in more highly crowded shelters, are also significantly lower than they were in 2019. 

Additionally, both cats and dogs are spending more than twice as much time in the care of the shelter, from an average of 40 days to more than 80. This means that even though intake numbers aren’t as high as they were in 2019, there are actually more animals in shelters. 

Many of those pets may be at risk of euthanasia as intake numbers rise even further with the onset of the spring “puppy and kitten season,” which begins in late February in warm climates, and in spring in the rest of the country.

2. Animal shelters are particularly vulnerable to the “great resignation.”

As Best Friends Animal Society’s recent survey data shows, nearly 60% of shelters say they are unable to provide good public service and 42% say they are unable to provide as much care and support for sheltered pets, all due to staffing shortages. 

Animal shelter work is undeniably tough, particularly in entry-level cleaning, feeding, and other technician positions. Long hours, weekend work, and comparably low wages are making it nearly impossible for animal shelters to maintain healthy staffing levels. 

Check out this Fear Free article to learn more about how staff shortages are impacting shelters.

3. There is a nationwide veterinarian and vet tech shortage

There simply are not enough veterinarians and the shortage disproportionately affects government and nonprofit animal services agencies as well as low-cost vet clinics, which cannot compete with the salaries and benefits of private practice vets. 

This means that in many places, animal shelters don’t have the vets or techs to provide the medical care animals need when they enter and to get them ready for adoption. The reasons for this veterinary shortage are complex and include widespread burnout and fatigue.

4. Pet owners are struggling like never before. 

Rising evictions, due to the expired eviction moratorium, are putting millions of pets at risk of entering the shelter system. People are moving in with family, moving to smaller housing units, and facing the impossible choice of having to find safe housing and give up their pet or to become homeless with their pet.

A recent study found that pet rental fees disproportionately impact low-income communities, making it hardest for people living in poverty to afford pet rent. Today, a whopping 98% of people consider their pets to be important family members, yet the threats to keeping human-animal families have never been greater. 

You can utilize the Human Animal Support Services Pet Eviction Calculator to calculate the number of pets in your town or city who are at risk of losing their housing and entering the shelter system.

5. Animal shelter workers are burned out and exhausted. 

Animal shelter professionals at all levels are reporting increasing altercations with members of the public (sometimes in response to mask mandates and other COVID protocols), more interactions with people having mental health crises, more exposure to the heartbreaking situations that lead to shelter intake, and just more trauma in general. 

In a recent poll of more than 150 shelter professionals, 75% reported they have been the victim of online bullying and harassment related to their work, 70% reported they’ve been on the receiving end of in-person threats or harassment, and 80% said this treatment was in response to an organizational policy that was not within their control.

6. Omicron just made everything much worse. 

Just before the holidays, omicron hit animal shelter staff and volunteers, leading to more severe staffing shortages and further hurting shelters’ ability to fulfill basic functions like intake, medical care, housing and feeding, and adoption and foster placement. 

Animal shelter workers spend their days in close confines with other people and members of the public, so the omicron variant is spreading rapidly in many organizations. In the coming weeks, expect to see further reductions in animal services around the country, as animal shelters try to provide basic standards of care with half or fewer of their usual staff on board.

What can you do to help? 

First, help keep pets OUT of shelters. You can do this by working to keep lost pets from entering shelters. If you find a friendly, healthy lost pet, consider holding that pet and get it home without it having to enter the shelter system. More than 70% of lost animals are found less than 1 mile from their home. 

Additionally, if you need to rehome your pet, consider supported self-rehoming instead of surrendering to the shelter. Finally, you can volunteer, adopt, foster, donate, and help get the word out about what your local shelter needs the most. 

Second, help get pets out of shelters alive. The perfect storm of factors described above is inevitably going to result in rising euthanasia numbers if we don’t act now. 

Along with adopting, fostering, donating, and volunteering with your local animal shelter, you can help by raising awareness of the problems in shelters. 

Encourage people to learn about how the Human Animal Support Services project is bringing together thousands of people and organizations to transform animal welfare to keep pets and people together, and pets out of shelters, during this historically difficult time. 

HASS is a national and international coalition innovating the animal sheltering system to prioritize helping people keep their pets, reserving the shelter for animals who truly need in-shelter services, and to protect and strengthen communities as a result. We offer tools, training, and other resources to partner organizations and to the public. 

In this time of great challenges—in animal welfare, and beyond—HASS provides a collaborative, community-centric path for preserving families and saving animals’ lives.

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