78 Sandra Murphy How Shelters Are Dealing with Returned “Pandemic Pets”

Dog and cat adoptions skyrocketed during the pandemic, but now that life is going back to “normal”, a lot of these animals are being returned to shelters and rescues. How are these organizations dealing with the problem?

For most of us, dogs and cats are for life. Sadly, not everyone feels the same way. Others may be forced by circumstance to give up their animals. This has become especially apparent in the wake of the pandemic, when a lot of the dogs and cats adopted during the early months of lockdown are being returned as people get busy again or find themselves facing financial problems. This article takes a look at how shelters and rescues are coping with the issue.


The pandemic’s work-from-home schedule came as a shock to many people. Without a commute, after-school activities, or family gatherings, people had a lot of extra time to do new things, like bake bread, learn to sew — or get a dog or cat to combat the loneliness and isolation. Just like bread baking caused a yeast shortage, dogs and cats were suddenly in such high demand that shelters and rescues soon had waiting lists.


Now that remote work and schooling has ended, everyone’s schedules have been upended again, and many dogs and cats are being left home alone for the first time. Because they’re not used to being left on their own, some of these animals are having issues adjusting. Both dogs and cats, when bored and lonely, will find ways to entertain themselves, and they’re not always ways their humans think are appropriate. Some become excessively vocal or destructive.

As well, social distancing during the pandemic has meant that a lot of dogs haven’t been socialized properly, leading to further behavioral issues such as anxiety. The result? Returns and surrenders have increased, and many shelters and rescues are now overwhelmed and beyond capacity.


The cost of living has also risen astronomically, making it more difficult for many people to afford to keep their animal companions. For already strained budgets, unexpected veterinary bills have forced a lot of people to make some hard choices.

“What’s going on now is a crisis of enormous proportions that shelters and rescues haven’t seen in decades,” says Temma Martin, PR manager at Best Friends Animal Society.


Another contributing factor to the high return rate of “pandemic pets” is that at the beginning of lockdown, when shelters were emptying fast, people weren’t able to choose a dog or cat best suited for their lifestyles. They instead took whatever was available, which meant the animals weren’t always the best match for them. A disconnect between a person’s lifestyle and the needs of the dog or cat can lead to behavior problems in the animal and frustration in the human — which then often result in the dog or cat being returned or surrendered.

“We hear ‘the cat is too active, or destructive, and we need to return him,’” says Ramona Marek, a writer and volunteer at O’Malley Alley Cat Rescue in Texas.


To help deal with the influx of “pandemic pets,” shelters and rescues are having to think outside the box.

  • “Shelters are becoming more creative with their adoption programs,” says Brittany Schlacter, PR specialist at the Bissell Pet Foundation. “From reduced-fee or fee-waived adoptions, to write-ups that look like dating profiles, shelters work hard to get animals in their care into loving homes.”
  • Zoom introductions can help potential adopters get to better know the animals they’re interested in. “They can ask questions, learn the quirks, likes and dislikes of the animal, see the dog’s grin onscreen or the cat on a lap,” says Temma.
  • Keeping lost-and-found animals out of shelters also helps. Most lost animals are within one mile from home, and bringing them to shelters when they’re found wandering isn’t the best solution. For example, Cabot Animal Support Services in Arkansas asks community members who bring a found dog or cat to the shelter to take the animal home for 48 hours, with crate and food provided. Incredibly, 65% end up going back to their original homes after their rescuers spread the word.
  • “If community members must rehome their animals, shelters offer options like the Home to Home adoption website where animals can be posted for adoption without entering the shelter,” says Brittany.

The pandemic has changed our lives in so many profound ways, and our companion animals are also affected. Doing what you can to help overwhelmed shelters, while securing your own dog or cat’s home with you will help get us through the crisis.

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