Animal shelters across the state are at or near capacity, with stray or surrendered cats and dogs arriving faster than shelters can find them new homes.

Last year, South Salt Lake Animal Services usually had only one or two dogs in its shelter at a time, according to animal services supervisor Jenica Laws. Currently, the shelter has 22.

“We take very good care of them,” Laws said. “They get outside as often as we can let them out, but ... it’s a little overwhelming sometimes when we have so many animals.”

The problem is widespread throughout the industry, straining existing resources at shelters and increasing the workload for the staff tasked with caring for the animals. Overtime shifts and multitasking are common at shelters, which sometimes need to rely on administrative staff or volunteers to stay current with proper cleaning and hygiene.

Previously, shelters and rescues have been able to share the load with one another by transferring animals back and forth when one facility reaches capacity. That’s no longer the case, thanks to the high numbers across the board.

“I think right now we’re all stuck in the same boat of being full,” said Melanie Bennett, director of animal services for the West Valley City Animal Shelter. “In the last few years, we’ve been able to move things so fast and this year, all the brakes are on.”

She added, “It’s kind of funny because when COVID hit and everybody was home, we were actually pulling from other shelters because we were so empty. ... I don’t know why, everything started to open up and we can’t get them home, we can’t get people to adopt.”

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Why are there so many animals?

It’s hard to pin the issue on a single culprit, but animal advocates point to the COVID-19 pandemic as a significant factor.

Nearly 1 in 5 households welcomed a dog or cat during the first year of the pandemic, according to a 2021 report by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The report said it found no evidence of these pandemic pets leading to a national surge in owner surrenders, but the impacts of the pandemic don’t end there.

At the same time that millions of Americans were seeking the company of a new pet, veterinarians, trainers and doggy day cares were forced to scale back their operations. The result is a generation of pets who lack traditional training and may be more prone to acting out when stressed or confused.

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

With the so-called “return to normalcy,” lots of dogs have suffered from separation anxiety after being left alone for the first time, Laws said.

“When everybody got to go back to work, the dogs didn’t understand what was going on and they started getting separation anxiety, which in turn caused them to be a little destructive, or they would escape the yard and whine and cry all the time,” she said. “So people were getting a little frustrated with that, and they would bring them to the shelter.”

But by doing so, Laws said, the dogs experience even further turbulence, potentially exacerbating the anxiety and behavior problems.

“They don’t have the comfort of home, they don’t have that couch to curl up on or that human to cuddle with,” she said. “When they’re put in a kennel ... with a lot of other barking dogs, it can be stressful for an animal and increase their anxiety.”

These dogs are less likely to be adopted and often need to be sent to a rescue where they can work with a trainer to help them adjust. Shelters rely on cycling through animals on a regular basis, and when a few dogs with behavior problems are repeatedly passed over for adoption it can really gum up the works.

Laws said most animals need to find their “forever home” where they can be comfortable and stable.

“I think if we had more people wanting to take the time with their animals, wanting to train with their animals, it would solve a lot of issues,” she said.

Dogs are caged at South Salt Lake Animal Services on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Animal shelters are seeing more pets being dropped off. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

‘The cycle just perpetuates’

Spaying and neutering remains one of the most tried-and-true ways to prevent overpopulation — especially among cats — but the procedure can be cost-prohibitive and is often overlooked by pet owners, according to Rachel Gitlin, president of Community Animal Welfare Society, commonly known as CAWS.

Fixing a single cat can cost as much as $300, and many of the nonprofits that provide cheaper options have remained closed during the pandemic. Coupled with the fact that cats can have kittens at only four months old and have a gestational period of 68 days, it’s easy to see how owners can quickly become overwhelmed.

“If your cat had (nine) kittens, there’s no way for you to afford $250 for nine cats, right?” said Gitlin. “Even people who really want to provide the best love and care for these animals — and really do in a lot of ways — veterinary care is where they get stumped.”

Even intentional pregnancies can spiral out of control, leaving owners no choice but to surrender litters to shelters or give them to friends or family.

“People will post on Facebook sites and say, ‘Hey, I would like my cat to have a litter of kittens so my children can experience the miracle of birth,’ but then they have no plan for what happens after,” Gitlin said. “A lot of times those kittens get adopted to people who do similar things, and the cycle just perpetuates.”

Shelters sterilize and microchip animals for identification, but they can’t always keep up with the constant flow in and out.

“The weird part is, we adopt everything out sterilized and microchipped, but everything coming in the back isn’t,” Bennett said. “We don’t know what’s going on there.”

Generally, medical costs remain one of the most expensive aspects of pet ownership, and rising inflation can make paying for a vet even more burdensome for some owners. Veterinarians are also in short supply, forcing owners to wait weeks or months for important medical care, according to Gitlin.

“We actually have a really high rate of burnout for veterinarians, because it’s a really freaking hard profession to be in,” she said. “A lot of people are waiting until issues become emergencies.”

Research backs up the difficulty of the job — a 2018 study found that veterinarians are up to 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than members of the general population.

South Salt Lake Animal Services control officer Zach Allen pets a dog at the shelter on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Animal shelters are seeing more pets being dropped off. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What’s next?

In no-kill shelters and rescues, animal caretakers are adamant that they will do whatever it takes to care for surrendered or abandoned animals.

“I wouldn’t turn them down,” Laws said, when asked how she would handle the arrival of more animals than the shelter is equipped for. “We will make sure we find them a home or find them a rescue.”

Bennett feels the same way, even if it means transferring animals to other shelters outside of Utah. Shelters can use smaller transport kennels to provide overflow space, but thankfully, it hasn’t come to that yet, Laws said.

But the current model of relying on well-meaning volunteers and adopters is seen as untenable in the long term. Donations of money or discounted services only go so far, and “It’s not a problem that’s going to get solved by putting weight on individuals,” Gitlin said.

She would like to see the government step up by providing more subsidized veterinary care, but isn’t optimistic after the Legislature recently failed to pass a bill to prevent cities from regulating “puppy mills” and other controversial practices. The bill was passed by lawmakers in the Utah House but stalled in the Senate.

“They were trying to get rid of being able to ban those things because they got kind of annoyed that the ‘animal welfare people are encroaching on our rights,’” Gitlin said. “It’ll be great if they wanted to allocate money for affordable fixes, I don’t know if that’s something they’re willing to do.”

For now, shelters are left to rely on the patchwork of volunteers, donations and — perhaps most importantly — those who are willing to provide discounted fixes and other medical services, often at their own expense.

“They’re (expletive) saints,” Gitlin said. “They just do it because they love the animals.”

Dogs are caged at South Salt Lake Animal Services on Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Animal shelters are seeing more pets being dropped off. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News