Animal shelters are in crisis mode as Americans struggle to afford their pets

Lonely and stuck at home, millions of Americans turned to animals for comfort in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, adopting and fostering cats and dogs from shelters at record rates. Videos of empty animal shelters went viral; Wired called it “the feel-good pandemic story you need right now.”

“It was a really fun time to be in animal welfare,” said Bobby Mann, chief programs officer of the Humane Rescue Alliance, the largest animal shelter in the Washington, DC, metro area. “We did absolutely see an uptick in adoptions.”

But starting in 2021, shelters began filling back up as there were more animals entering than leaving, and now many are packed to the brim. From Rhode Island to Seattle and everywhere in between, shelters are reporting they’re at capacity, forcing an increase in the number of dogs killed due to space constraints. Earlier this year, almost half of shelters surveyed reported an increase in euthanized dogs, while only 10 percent reported a decrease.

“Perfectly adoptable dogs are losing their lives and it is a crisis,” said one municipal shelter that was surveyed. “We need volunteers, fosters, and adopters.”

Dogs are kept in cages at the Harris County Pets animal shelter in Houston, Texas. In 2022, the shelter reported being over capacity and understaffed as a steady increase in animal returns and rescues overwhelmed the facility.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

“By and large, shelters are screaming from the rooftops that they’ve been in crisis for a while, and it’s not letting up,” said Stephanie Filer, executive director of Shelter Animals Count, an organization that collects and publishes data from thousands of animal shelters and conducted the euthanasia survey. The group predicts the situation will continue to worsen this year.

The trend threatens the immense progress that animal shelters have made to reduce the number of animals put down since the 1970s, when 13.5 million of the 65 million dogs and cats in the US — more than one-fifth — were euthanized. In 2019, fewer than a million dogs and cats, about 0.7 percent of the country’s 135 million, were put down.

It’s one thing for, say, Peloton bikes to pile up in some warehouse as Americans return to normalcy and consumer demand rebalances in response. But when the product is an animal — and make no mistake, we treat animals as products — the rebalance of demand and supply can result in mass suffering, as shelters are forced to make the hard choice between packing more and more animals together in crowded, noisy environments, euthanizing them, or turning them away.

What’s driving America’s animal shelter crisis?

The state of animal shelters can largely be tracked by a simple metric: how many animals are entering shelters versus how many are leaving, known as the population gap. An animal can be taken into a shelter because they were picked up as a stray (the most common reason), surrendered by their owner, or rescued from a cruelty case or puppy mill. Animals leave shelters when they’re found by their owners, adopted, transferred to another shelter, or euthanized (almost 15 percent of cases in 2019).

In 2020, when people were adopting shelter animals at record rates, 2 percent more animals left shelters than came in over the course of the year, according to Shelter Animals Count. But in 2021, that figure reversed — 2 percent more animals entered shelters than left, either as strays or surrendered by their owners. In 2022, the trend worsened: 4 percent more animals entered shelters than left. That may not seem like much, but each percentage point amounts to tens of thousands of animals.

Shelter Animals Count projects that by the end of 2023, the population gap will tick up to 5 percent.

Many of the animals currently entering shelters are strays. While owner surrender rates have fallen in recent years, there’s been an 8 percent increase in stray intakes from January to June 2023 compared to the same time period in 2022, and a 26 percent increase compared to the same period in 2021. But why so many are coming in off the streets is a bit of a mystery.

One theory is that some of these strays are just owner surrenders in disguise. In 2020, due to Covid-19 precautions, many animal shelters stopped allowing people to walk in and surrender their animals, instead requiring them to make an appointment — a practice many shelters have kept in place. The demand for surrender appointments is now so high that many shelters have long waitlists. So the uptick in strays could simply represent people trying to jump the surrender line by claiming they found a stray animal (which doesn’t require an appointment). Or they could be simply abandoning them on the street.

It’s tempting to judge people who surrender their animals, and some surely do so for shallow reasons, like deciding a pet is too much of an inconvenience or failing to properly train them. But the main reason so many people are giving up their pets — especially dogs — is because they simply can’t afford to keep them.

For low-income families, it’s hard enough to find affordable housing, and affordable pet-friendly housing is even harder to secure. Many apartment buildings ban certain breeds or dogs over a certain weight. Shelters are taking in especially high numbers of large dogs over 40–50 pounds, Mann of the Humane Rescue Alliance said.

“The same [economic] trends that affect people always affect animals,” said Filer with Shelter Animals Count, referring to high inflation and the national housing crisis that has led to a rise in eviction rates and homelessness in recent years. Housing insecurity is the top reason people are surrendering their animals, according to Mann and Filer. If someone gets to the point where they’re surrendering their animal out of financial hardship, they’ve generally tried everything else and they have no other option, she added.

The high stray rates, Mann speculates, could also be a consequence of high pet acquisition rates early in the pandemic: There are now simply more animals out in the world who can become strays by, for example, slipping out of their homes and getting lost.

Veterinary costs have also heavily outpaced inflation from July 2022 to July 2023 because of increases in the cost of medical supplies and rising wages due in part to a veterinarian shortage. Some veterinarians partly blame the corporate and private equity takeover of clinics and hospitals for rising vet care costs. There’s also a shelter worker shortage, which is part of an economy-wide labor market shortage.

Some people may be surrendering their pets because pet ownership is just difficult, especially with animals that are having a hard time adjusting to post-pandemic life after years cooped up with their owners. Many dog owners report behavioral issues as they head back to the office or bring their poorly socialized animals into public spaces.

“We’re just overstimulating these animals that have never had this level of stimulation,” said Mann.

It may just be too much for some pet owners to handle; training can require a lot of time and effort that some people aren’t willing to spend.

“I encourage people not to take on more than they can handle,” said Crystal Heath, a veterinarian who works with shelters and veterinary clinics in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. “And I don’t think that dog ownership or cat ownership or pet ownership in any way is a right that people should have. But I also am not going to be judgmental about somebody who brings an animal in or takes care of an animal who would be killed otherwise and provides them with the best care that they can.”

Heath suspects part of the stray problem could also be due to reduced spay and neuter access in the initial months of the Covid-19 pandemic, as veterinary offices suspended nonessential services.

Spay and neuter surgeries were down 13 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, according to a paper by veterinary researchers at the University of Florida. By the end of 2021, spays and neuters had bounced back close to 2019 levels, but a year of reduced access, according to the researchers, “may have the potential to undermine progress made in controlling pet populations and euthanasia in shelters.”

Spaying and neutering pets is key to keeping shelter populations down and reducing the number of euthanized animals because it prevents them from having babies that may wind up in a shelter. Intact animals — those who haven’t been spayed or neutered — also tend to have higher rates of certain behavioral issues, like increased aggression and escape attempts (in the effort to find a mate), which could result in more strays and surrenders.

Amid all this bad news, there’s one silver lining: Cats are having a moment. Cat adoption rates are much higher than those for dogs, which makes sense in the context of the housing crisis and inflation, as cats are more affordable and have fewer housing restrictions.

A kitten peeking out of a box at Long Beach Animal Care Services in Long Beach, California.
Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

“Cats were previously our challenge … now cat adoption rates are in the 60 [percent range],” Filer said. “Dog adoption rates are in the 50s.”

What your local animal shelter needs

Adopt, foster, volunteer, and donate: Those four actions, Filer said, are needed to help shelters climb out of the hole they’re in.

The first one is obvious: Every animal adopted (instead of purchased from a store or breeder) means one less animal suffering and potentially euthanized in a shelter. If everyone who buys an animal chose to adopt instead, the need for euthanasia in shelters would drastically fall because there are far more dogs purchased every year than euthanized. The hard part is persuading the many people who only want to buy a dog with a particular look or size (even if how they’ve been bred can increase their risk for serious health issues).

“I wish they had to look into the eyes of who we have to kill before bringing more lives into this world,” said Heath, who sometimes performs euthanasia, about dog and cat breeders. She wishes there were more public funding to care for animals — and argues some of it should come from puppy mills and dog breeders who are driving pet overpopulation.

A woman looking at a dog in a kennel.

Gina Knepp, manager of Front Street Animal Shelter in Sacramento, California, evaluates a year-old white and brindle pitbull mix slated to be euthanized (photograph from 2014). Knepp ultimately took her off the euthanization list.
Manny Crisostomo/Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

To help with the staff shortage at shelters, try volunteering at a shelter or even fostering animals. I know some people who don’t feel they have the time, money, or lifestyle to properly care for a cat or dog long term, so they foster regularly instead. It’s also a great way to test out adoption if you’re unsure it’s for you.

Shelters really need money, too. Donations to shelters are down, Filer said, while the amount of work is up. And more and more shelters are implementing critical but costly programs that make pet adoption, and pet keeping, more affordable.

For example, Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington, DC, runs a pet food bank and a low-cost vaccine clinic (and vaccines reduce additional vet bills down the road). It also has a veterinarian who travels to people’s homes to help in emergency situations.

“That has been a big shift in our strategy over the last probably three or four years,” Mann said. “I believe if we did not have these comprehensive programs in place, we would see a significant increase in owner surrender.”

If you’re not in a position to adopt a pet anytime soon, giving money might help someone else hold on to theirs.

The animal shelter crisis is a window into the national housing crisis and its ripple effects. It’s also a telling example of our twisted relationship to animals: We consider dogs to be man’s best friend, yet we breed so many to suffer while millions languish in shelters, many of whom are ultimately killed to make room for ever more strays and surrenders.

Declining euthanasia rates in shelters has been one of the few success stories in the animal welfare movement over the last several decades. But that progress is at risk if we don’t do more to change how pets are acquired — and if more of us don’t open our homes, or at least our wallets, if we can afford it, to shelter animals.