When I was about 12 years old, my mother let me have my “pick of the litter” from a group of miniature dachshund pups that were being sold outside of an In-N-Out Burger in Draper, Utah. She paid a few hundred dollars for my new tiny friend.

In hindsight, I know that this was a motherly gesture to help with my budding teenage angst — she thought I could use a loyal friend as I navigated the daunting transition from elementary to middle school.

I named her Addy, and though tiny, she quickly became a prominent member of the family alongside several other canine and feline friends and is still chugging along to this day.

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As it was for my family, the addition of a new pet is a joyful part of many American childhoods and lives, no matter the circumstances of how you come by the pet. But adopting a new pet from a shelter or rescue, rather than buying one from a breeder or pet store, can create a ripple effect of positive impact.

Right now, the United States is facing a crisis of chock-full animal shelters, and Utah is no exception. In the U.S., “of the 4.6 million cats and dogs entering shelters in 2021, 3.8 million were saved,” according to Utah-founded Best Friends Animal Society.

“Adopting a pet is literally helping to save the life of a shelter animal,” Jami Johanson, development coordinator at Salt Lake County Animal Services, said in an interview with the Deseret News. 

“Every single day I look at all our wonderful animals at Salt Lake County Animal Services and wonder how they ended up here and why their owners didn’t come back for them,” she said. “This is why it is so important for our community to help give these wonderful pets a second chance at finding a loving, forever home.”

Dundee, a 4-year-old American pit bull mix, peers through the bars of his kennel at Salt Lake County Animal Services.
Dundee, a 4-year-old American pit bull mix, peers through his kennel at Salt Lake County Animal Services in Millcreek, where he is available for adoption, on Thursday, April 20, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The statistics on animals in shelters

Utah doesn’t face as steep of an uphill battle as some states do regarding animal welfare, but the Beehive State certainly faces challenges. According to Best Friends’ data, 42 out of 59 shelters in Utah are designated as “no-kill,” and “in 2021, nearly 886 dogs and cats were killed in animal shelters across Utah.”

On top of that, the designation of “no-kill” doesn’t necessarily mean that no animals are killed after ending up in a shelter. Per Best Friends, “no-kill” is defined as having “a 90% save rate for animals entering a shelter.” The animal welfare group also defines the term as “saving every dog or cat in a shelter who can be saved.”

Salt Lake County Animal Services, a municipal no-kill shelter located in Salt Lake City, took in more than six thousand animals in 2022, Johanson told the Deseret News.

Johanson has been with the shelter for over a decade, and has seen the ups and downs of unchecked animal population, even in an urban area like Salt Lake City.

“When I started at the shelter 11 years ago, we were over capacity on both dogs and cats,” she said. “Over the years things got significantly better. Less animals were coming in and the numbers were more manageable. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a huge increase in animals getting adopted. Now, over the last year, the number of shelter pets continues to rise. We have started to double up on dogs, meaning two dogs per kennel, and are currently looking into purchasing even more dog kennels because we are running out of space.”

Local shelters and rescues have adopted strategies aimed at encouraging more folks to adopt pets to help with Utah’s over-capacity shelters, including adoption events, specials and more. While the initiatives do help to a degree, shelters are still facing overwhelming population numbers.

“Specials help Salt Lake County Animal Services advertise adoptable pets, although the specials aren’t bringing in nearly enough adopters,” Johanson said. “Unfortunately, our shelter is still at capacity.”

Toyota, a 2-year-old husky mix, and Kota, a 2-year-old border collie mix, are pictured in their kennels at Salt Lake County Animal Services in Millcreek, where they are available for adoption, on Thursday, April 20, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

How breeding impacts pets in shelters

So what’s contributing to the overcrowded shelters throughout the U.S.? One key factor behind the numbers is the ongoing, and often unregulated, breeding of dogs.

Some argue that dog breeding, or any animal breeding, for that matter, can often come with inhumane, clandestine practices. The Humane Society of the United States estimates “that there are at least 10,000 puppy mills in the United States, fewer than 3,000 of which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” according to the organization’s website.

The organization’s research page on the topic describes the “inhumane commercial dog breeding facilities” as places that “disregard the dogs’ health — both physical and emotional — in order to maximize profits.”

The Humane Society also states that the “estimated number of puppies sold annually who originated from puppy mills” is about 2.6 million. The puppies are generally sold in pet stores or online, and once the father and mother dogs can no longer reproduce, they are often abandoned or euthanized.

Whether it’s large-scale puppy mills, local backyard breeders or folks who haven’t spayed or neutered their pets, the inherent consequences of dog breeding hinders the progress and core mission of animal shelters and rescues. How? It creates more pets, often at an alarming rate, Melanie Bennett, director of animal services for West Valley City Animal Shelter, told the Deseret News.

COVID-19’s whiplash effect on animal shelters and rescues

The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly every — if not all — aspect of lives across the globe, and while many Americans were adjusting to their new homebound routines, they welcomed new pets into their homes. In fact, due to the skyrocketed demand for pets during the pandemic, many shelters across the U.S. ran out of animals to adopt out, The Washington Post reported in 2021.

But the empty shelters didn’t last for long, as many of those Americans returned their pets after the pandemic’s restrictions lifted and faded with time. Shelters in America have been bearing the brunt of the post-pandemic surge, including Utah’s West Valley Animal Shelter.

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“Over the past year, the amount of strays has continued to increase. A lot of these are dogs 2 years and under, without microchips and intact. It was possible, during COVID, that people would get dogs/puppies, since people were home to play with them,” Bennett said.

“They also may have been breeding dogs to use as an income during hard times. Unfortunately, this caused a major increase in animal population,” she said. “Now, people are back to work and don’t have time, or money, to continue sustaining these animals.”

Inflation may also be a contributing factor behind the overcrowded shelters and the high number of homeless pets, Johanson said.

Forbes reported that “dog owners spend an average of $730 a year on their dogs,” and last year, “Americans spent $136.8 billion on their pets.” When hit with hard financial times, owners may find themselves scrambling to provide enough food for a dog.

To help Utahns with this, West Valley City Animal Shelter “currently holds a once-a-month Pet Pantry event that is meant to help those who are struggling to feed their pets. We are trying to help in every way possible to keep pets with their families and out of shelters,” Bennett said.

Echo, an 11-month old coonhound mix, plays outside at Salt Lake County Animal Services in Millcreek on Thursday, April 20, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Misconceptions about shelter animals

“Shelter pets are a great addition to any family, and I believe the right rescue pet is out there for everyone,” Johanson says.

It’s a common misconception that pets from shelters are somehow undesirable — whether that be because of physical ailments, being mixed-breed or having some sort of behavioral issue — but this can’t be further from the truth.

“There are lots of breeds to choose from in the shelters,” says Bennett. She also highlighted the fact that when adopting a pet, “all the animals in the shelter are updated on vaccinations, sterilizations, and microchipped.”

Many of the animals find themselves in a shelter for numerous reasons, whether that be because they were found as a stray or lost pet, or they were surrendered by their owner.

“These animals need the time to decompress, but once they do, they are so sweet and just want to be loved,” says Bennett. In other words, patience is key.

After bringing an animal home from a shelter or rescue, it may take a few weeks for your new pet to acclimate to your home, family and routine.

“No matter where you get your dog ... give the dog a chance,” Hailey Evans, a volunteer at Utah-based animal rescue group Rescue Rovers, said in an interview with the Deseret News. Evans explained that many shelters and rescues go by the “rule of threes,” where adopters can expect their pet to fully realize it’s in a new environment after three days, to acclimate to their surroundings after three weeks and to really begin flourishing in their new home after three months.

Three-month-old kittens Tom and Jerry snuggle in their enclosure at Salt Lake County Animal Services in Millcreek, where they are available for adoption, on Thursday, April 20, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Not sure about adopting? Fostering is an option

Fostering a pet is a way to dip your toes without jumping into the long-term commitment of adopting a pet. Through fostering, individuals can save multiple lives and find the perfect pet. Many city and county shelters offer fostering programs, wherein if approved, you can temporarily house cats, dogs, etc. until they find a permanent home.

“Fostering saves three dogs,” Evans said. “There’s the dog that we remove from the shelter ... that dog gets adopted, it gives me room for another dog (to foster) and then it gives another dog that dog’s place at the shelter.”

Evans conducts the orientation course for new fosters looking to begin the process of fostering a dog through Rescue Rovers.

Some local rescue organizations, like Rescue Rovers, completely operate off of their volunteer fosters, given that they are not based out of a brick and mortar location.

“There are about 200 of us all over the valley, and some of us even spread out over Utah, that work together to do this,” Evans said. “What makes that great is because no one is paid, and because we don’t have a facility, we can use those funds towards medical care for these dogs.”

The main purpose of fostering is to give these animals a safe place to land until their forever home comes along, whether that be for several days or a few weeks. It also helps take the animal out of, what can be, a stressful shelter environment, and frees up more shelter space for additional animals in need.

Fostering can also help save a dog who is on the euthanasia list. This can happen in overcrowded shelters due to lack of space or if the dog is withdrawn or exhibiting signs of fear or aggression.

“The primary source of our dogs are high-kill shelters and they come directly into foster care,” Evans said.

“Sometimes we don’t get a full understanding of a dog’s personality or quirks in a shelter, but we get a very good sense of them with fostering,” she said. “They’re in a home environment and we’re exposing them to other dogs and cats and kids.” This understanding of a dog’s personality helps fosters find a home and family that will be a better match for the animal, and helps lower the return rate.

Though each organization is different, shelters and rescues will generally provide everything a foster may need while fostering a pet: medical care, food, leashes, harnesses, beds, toys, treats, etc. Generally, you can also pick which type of animal you would like to foster — whether you’d like a senior dog who loves to nap, a playful puppy or a feisty kitten, you’re bound to find a friend.

Norvik, a 2-year-old Great Pyrenees mix, looks out from his kennel at Salt Lake County Animal Services in Millcreek, where he is available for adoption, on Thursday, April 20, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

My experience adopting a pet

Despite her price tag, my family wouldn’t trade Miss Addy for the world. The stubborn little pup — it’s a dachshund thing — cemented her place in our hearts. My mother’s spontaneous decision to let me pick out a big-eyed pup is a very happy memory for me.

But as I grew older and became aware of all the homeless pets in need of a home, I knew I couldn’t justify buying a pet from a breeder or pet store as perfectly lovely animals were being euthanized, simply for lack of space.

Fast forward about 10 years after my mother and I brought Addy home — I’m an adult, and though Addy was a fantastic companion for me and my entire family during my teen years, my mother has always been Addy’s person, and she prefers to live with her.

In 2021, after searching for a dog of my own, my father drove me up to Heber City in a snowstorm to meet a dog that I had seen an online listing for. She was located at the Paws for Life Utah animal rescue, and when I walked in and saw her for the first time, I’ll admit, I felt a rush of sadness.

The dog — maybe a corgi-mix of some sort — had recently had a litter of puppies and had been dumped at a Utah County animal shelter not long after giving birth. Her tummy exhibited the tell-tale signs of a mother dog, with stretched out nipples and skin.

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She looked lost, terrified and defeated. She reluctantly followed Nancy, who worked at the rescue and had pulled her from the shelter a few weeks prior, around the room.

Her name was Katniss — I shortened it to Kat when I adopted her, I’m not much of a “Hunger Games” fan. I adopted this dog, who had been recently spayed and was up to date on her shots, for $100. The fee went toward the rescue’s efforts to save more animals.

This year, after working with Kat for two years on building her confidence, trust and enthusiasm, it was time to get her a companion.

My partner and I recently adopted a small dachshund-mix named Teddy from Salt Lake County Animal Services. He had been brought in as a stray, and though microchipped, his owners could not be located. After being on a weeklong stray hold, he became available for adoption for $17, and we took him home to meet Kat.

I cannot fully express the gratefulness these two small creatures exude. Though they both show signs of past trauma and abuse, I believe they understand they are safe and in their forever home.