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Surge in Unwanted Dogs Fuels ‘Crisis’ Across U.S. Animal Shelters

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Constant phone calls from desperate pet owners. Hallways full of temporary dog crates. Fewer adoptions.

Animal shelters across the U.S. are overwhelmed and overflowing. With more workers heading back to the office and pet essentials like food and veterinary care prices swelling, the number of unwanted dogs has climbed.

Stray dogs taken in by shelters have risen 6% in the January to November period compared to 2022 and are up about 22% since 2021, according to Shelter Animals Count, which surveys nearly 7,000 shelters nationally. Some have started to turn animals away.

“Shelters are quite literally at crisis and some of them are making the decision to close their doors or reduce hours of operation or reduce the kind of animals that they bring in,” said Stephanie Filer, the organization’s executive director.

While older dogs have long been at risk of losing their homes, Filer said this year there’s also been a big increase in puppies and purebred dogs arriving at shelters. 

The dip in adoptions along with the rise in dog intake at shelters marks a stark reversal from the surge in adoptions of dogs and cats seen during the pandemic. The U.S. pet population jumped 6% in 2020 and 4% in 2021, according to the pet healthcare company IDEXX Laboratories Inc. Historically, growth is around 1% annually.

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Animal Care Centers of NYC — New York City’s largest animal shelter — announced in October that it was no longer accepting dog surrenders at any of its locations due to a population crisis. 

“We’re having to create space in a way that we haven’t had to before,” Zoe Kenney of Animal Care Centers of NYC said in December. While the shelter is once again accepting surrenders, too many dogs lead to enclosures that are roughly half the shelter’s preferred size and popup kennels in hallways and offices. 

Kenney, who connects owners in need with resources like veterinary care, says she can get as many as 20 calls a day from owners looking to surrender their pets. One of the biggest reasons stems from landlord disputes and pet restrictions, she said, but the other is financial insecurity.

“Sometimes people are choosing between putting food on their plate and putting food on their pet’s plate,” Kenney said.

The cumulative burden of higher costs for everything from groceries to rent has strained many families’ budgets, and for some, the added expense of a pet is just too much. Dog owners paid an average of $344 annually for veterinary visits, $354 for food and $315 for boarding in 2022, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Meanwhile, the end of pandemic-era eviction restrictions has provided landlords the ability to enforce pet policies. Some apartments bar dogs altogether while others have bans on those of a certain size or breed.

In an effort to keep animals with their owners, the Humane Society of the United States has been pushing for housing policies that are welcoming to dogs and cats. California, for instance, passed a law in 2022 to incentivize the development of lower-income housing that allows pets.

Strained finances and the slump in dog adoptions have extended to pet products retailers as well.

Petco Health & Wellness Co. Chief Executive Officer Ron Coughlin said the company is switching out its selection of brands, bringing in nationally recognized value brands for food and treats. The top executive of the online pet retailer Chewy Inc., which cut its guidance for full-year net sales, underscored that the company’s “value proposition continues to resonate loudly” with consumers in the company’s latest earnings call.

No room

In Atlanta, grocery store manager Matthew Garbett found a 50-pound Labrador mix tied to a telephone pole at his store, abandoned. He took the dog home temporarily — where he had two small dogs already — and spent eight months trying to find a home for the dog, including by calling shelters and animal control.

“People are obviously giving up dogs at an incredible rate,” said Garbett, 49, who finally was able to find a shelter that would accept the dog. “It’s clearly appalling that someone gave up on this dog and just literally tied it to a telephone pole.”

The MSPCA-Angell, a Massachusetts nonprofit, accepted about 5,000 animals from other shelters that had no more room last year, according to Mike Keiley, director of adoption centers and programs at the organization.

The stress of an overcrowded shelter can make the animals harder to handle and harder to place, said Kenney of Animal Care Centers of NYC. MSPCA-Angell’s Keiley says many shelters can’t walk their dogs at all when over capacity. Others have to house dogs in groups rather than individually.

Deaths in shelters have also increased. The number of “non-live outcomes” for dogs jumped 27% from 2022 and 78% from 2021, according to data from Shelter Animals Count for the January to November period.

It’s a “national dog crisis,” Keiley said. There’s so many compounding forces that are creating this perfect storm right now.”

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