Utah reduced its shelter kills by 1,161 last year — a 58% reduction over the previous year — making the state 13th in the nation for saving the most dogs and cats, according to new data from Best Friends Animal Society.
But animal rescuers are concerned that some pets adopted during the pandemic could end up back in the shelter or given away as many owners return to the workplace.
Last year, 44,767 cats and dogs entered shelters. Of them, 39,358 found new homes and 829 were killed for lack of a home, Best Friends Animal Society says.
Temma Martin, spokeswoman for the society, said within the first week of the pandemic, many residents “stepped up to foster in record numbers.”
The country saw a 90% increase in fosters as schools, businesses and recreational activities started to shut down. Many decided it was a good time to adopt because they expected to spend more time at home, Martin said.
“So we saw a huge increase just through Best Friends in the numbers of fosters and adoptions early on in the pandemic,” she said.
COVID-19 also changed the way shelters function, Martin said. While they quickly closed down, many of their animals were placed in foster homes. When someone was interested in adopting an animal, they met virtually with the pet’s foster, a counselor and the pet — a more comfortable and happy environment for the animal to meet a perspective adoptee. That format led to more adoptions, Martin said.
Shelter organizations still provided all supplies to foster families, “but it's great just because the animal is living in a comfortable home environment and they show better than they do in a cage or a kennel,” Martin said.
“A lot of shelters don't plan to go back to having a shelter full of animals and having people go in to adopt from there,” she added.
Across the United States there was a 40% decrease in the number of animals killed or euthanized — a trend rescuers hope doesn’t reverse. In some states, however, reports say pets adopted during the pandemic are being returned at a high rate.
Salt Lake County Animal Services now has 26 dogs in its shelter compared to an average of between 10 and 15 at any given time before the pandemic, said Randee Lueker, rescue and events coordinator. Those are dogs animal services workers rescue from the streets, as the shelter doesn’t typically accept drop-offs.
At the same time, adoptions from the shelter are down, Lueker said.
The uptick in dogs coming into shelters does not appear to be a statewide trend more than a year after COVID-19 hit the state, according to Martin.
“It seems to stay pretty steady, but of course we're concerned. We want to be sure that people, as they're going back to work, have a plan for their new pets and that they prepare them for separation anxiety and also train them, especially if they got a puppy, train them to be good family members so that they don't now have a year-old dog that doesn't have any basic manners either in dealing with a new home or dealing with new people,” Martin said.
It's common for people who adopt puppies to face issues as the puppies get older, Martin added. Some puppies during the pandemic didn’t get professional obedience training due to COVID-19 closures.
Martin said it's not too late — families should play “catch up” now to get their dogs trained if they were unable to during the pandemic. She said she's heard of people who want to re-home their pet now due to behavioral concerns, but if the pet hasn't been trained, it will likely create issues for the next owners.
The best thing an owner can do in that situation is to spay or neuter their dog if they haven’t already done so, and find guidance for training it, according to Martin. Virtual training is available through Zoom and other apps, she said. Outdoor classes are also available.
“I know the temptation is there to just find a different home for the pet, but if it is behaving in a way that’s troublesome for your family, it will probably be troublesome for the next family too,” Martin said. “These animals were there for us during the pandemic in a difficult time providing companionship. ... We owe it to them to help them become a good family member, and that involves training.”
For those concerned about leaving their pets at home when they go to work, Martin noted that many people have been doing that long before the pandemic began. Owners can train their pets to be alone for short periods of time and then work them up to longer periods. Dogs usually sleep for most of the day when they’re alone, Martin said, and so it's possible to work full-time and have a pet to greet you when you get home.
“This is something that we want to be sure people are prepared for so there isn't a flood of animals being turned into shelters,” Martin said.
Millions of people purchased puppies at the beginning of the pandemic, Martin said, noting that they weren't shelter animals to begin with and did not come with training. If many owners decide to give them up, “that would be a huge impact on shelters,” she said.
Most of the dogs in the Salt Lake County animal shelter are between the ages of 1 and 3, according to Lueker. Almost one-third are huskies, several are shepherds and some are working dogs. She said the shelter has seen an increase in dogs with behavioral issues, but shelter workers do not know why.
How to help
Lueker urges residents who are interested to consider adopting or fostering a dog from the county shelter. More information can be found at adoptutahpets.org.
About 70% of animal shelters in Utah are designated as no-kill shelters, meaning they only kill animals that are not adoptable, either because of medical or behavioral issues. They also have a goal to adopt out at least 90% of the animals housed at the shelter.
Those who want to help the state reach the threshold set by the No-Kill Utah initiative can help by choosing to adopt from a shelter or rescue group, getting their pets spayed or neutered, fostering pets, volunteering and spreading the word about animal welfare issues, Martin said.
For areas with higher kill rates, it’s usually due to community cats, she said, encouraging people to find out if their local government supports programs that trap, neuter and return feral cats to colonies. If more shelters adopt such programs, it can help prevent hundreds of animal deaths, Martin said.
Utah County is the only county along the Wasatch Front that hasn't implemented a “return to field” program for stray cats.