Why animal shelter overcrowding is a housing affordability issue

KC Pet Project, an animal shelter in Kansas City, Missouri, opened a brand-new facility in January 2020. It came just in time: Last year, they took in 16,000 animals — more than double they took when they opened in 2012. Although the pandemic came with a spurt of foster and adoption interest early on, the rescue is now facing an overcrowding crisis. 

“We’re seeing 40 to 60 new animals coming in every single day here. And we’ve never seen this many dogs — ever,” said Tori Fugate, the organization’s chief communications officer.

They’re not alone. In Maricopa County, Arizona, Home Fur Good did 848 adoptions in 2020. “Which was phenomenal, we’d never had that many,” said board member Loretta Isaac. 

This year, they’re on track for 350 adoptions, less than half what they did in 2020 but also fewer than an average year pre-pandemic, Isaac said.

Early in the pandemic, rescues across the country saw a record number of adoptions. Some shelters sat empty for the first time. But now, not enough animals leaving shelters is a national trend, according to Shelter Animals Count, a nonprofit that surveys 7,000 U.S. animal shelters and rescues each year. Dogs — particularly medium and large breed dogs — are going longer without a permanent home, according to SAC. What gives?

Shelter overcrowding is a multifaceted issue that doesn’t have one solution, said SAC executive director Stephanie Filer. But their partner organizations say housing has become the number one reason people give up their pets.

The data backs this up. In a 2021 survey of non-rural renters by the Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative, 72% of respondents said pet-friendly housing is hard to find and 59% said pet-friendly housing is too expensive. Fourteen percent said they’ve surrendered their pet as a result of their housing situation.

Pet(s) or not, there is a national housing affordability crisis. Mortgage rates are the highest they’ve been in over 20 years. No state has enough affordable rental housing for its lowest income renters. And rents have grown faster than wages in the U.S. for the past five years — in 2023, rent in New York City grew over seven times faster than wages.

Shelters across the U.S. are grappling with this new reality. “It’s hard to find an affordable rental, let alone a pet friendly, affordable rental that does not have breed or size restrictions tied to it,” said Alison Fotsch Kleibor, CEO of Wisconsin Humane Society. “So that means that families are separated. And it also means our adopters have a harder time saying yes, even if they’re falling in love with somebody on our adoption floor.”

Kleibor said sheltering homeless dogs is a reactive solution. Organizations need to also focus on “proactive” solutions, she said.

That can look like shelters hosting free and low-cost clinics for spays, neuters, dental work and vaccines in an effort to keep pets with their families. Wisconsin Humane Society even has a tip line that gives free behavioral advice like litter box training and leash reactivity to pet owners all over the country. 

“We can’t solve all of the problems but we can give them some tips and or refer them to someone who might be able to support them,” Kleibor said. “​​We really try to plug those gaps for families.”

Loretta Isaac said Home Fur Good sends food donations to Empty Bowls, Chuck Waggin’ and other pet food pantries. Other shelters keep extra food on hand for pet owners in need or donate pet food to human food pantries. “We try to help in whatever way we can. But it is kind of a grim situation right now,” she said. 

Cars line up in a parking lot between two massive piles of dog and cat food bags.
A drive-through pet food giveaway event hosted by KC Pet Project. (Courtesy KCPP)

Isaac said the shelter gets more requests to take in animals pet owners can no longer care for than adoption requests.

“We get inundated with calls, emails, ‘I’m homeless, I’m living in my car, can you take my two dogs?’ And it breaks your heart. Or, ‘I need to move to an apartment, I’m losing my home, can you take my four cats?’” she said.

One thing the overcrowding crisis is not a result of, shelter representatives said, is people returning pets they got during the pandemic.

“That was not supported by the data on a national level, at all,” said SAC’s Stephanie Filer. “The more common reason is people are showing up tearfully, wishing they had other options and having to say goodbye to a part of their family. It’s hard on the animal, it’s hard on the people that are having to say goodbye and it’s really hard on the staff to have to be a part of something so traumatic, frankly, day in and day out.”

From a business perspective, rescuing animals has become more expensive. Most adoption centers rely on donations and grants, which haven’t necessarily kept pace with inflation. Food, vet care and staff salaries all cost more than they used to, several rescue representatives said. There’s also a vet shortage.

Badass Animal Rescue, based in Brooklyn, “saves badass dogs from idiot humans.” They transfer dogs from high-kill shelters across the country to foster homes in the New York City area. The cost to transport and board those dogs has gone way up, said executive director Krista Almqvist.

People kneel to meet dogs wearing jackets that say "adopt me."
Woofstock 2024 included pet portraits, a dog kissing booth, and a magic show for dogs. (Carly Boyle/Badass Animal Rescue)

In early May, the organization held “Woofstock,” an annual street festival to bring together the community and raise awareness for dogs they have up for adoption. “Most of the funds come from sponsors, so that the day is free and available for everybody to just come in and join,” Almqvist said.

All-in-all, it was huge success: Seven dogs were adopted and they raised over $22,000 — it was the highest-grossing Woofstock yet.

They aren’t the only ones getting creative with adoption incentives. The Wisconsin Humane Society ran four half-off adoption events in the past year to make space for more dogs. That’s something they hadn’t done in a decade, said CEO Alison Fotsch Kleibor.

Another form of community outreach is animal control. KC Pet Project has a government contract with Kansas City to provide the city’s animal control services, including things like responding to calls for stray animals or neglect. 

Instead of writing tickets for pet owners whose dog gets out a lot, for example, the team tries to help provide resources and solutions. 

“Is there a hole in the fence? Can we help in any way?” said KC Pet Project’s Tori Fugate. “It’s great to have both (animal control and the shelter) under one roof so that we can all work together to collectively help the pets and people of Kansas City.”

In 2020, they also began a reclaim fee forgiveness program to encourage owners to pick up lost or runaway pets. Last year, they waived $117,000 of those fees “just to get pets out of the shelter faster,” Fugate said.

Rescues and shelters can’t solve the affordable housing crisis or make more apartments in their area pet-friendly. But they are doing their best to support pet owners who are struggling to juggle the cost of pets with the rising cost of everything else in life.

“As much as we’re an animal services organization, we are a people organization,” said Wisconsin Humane’s Alison Fotsch Kleibor. “It’s only through working with people and really understanding the needs of our community that we can do best by the animals we’re caring for.”

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