For many Americans, pets offer a rare source of comfort during uncertain times. Dog lovers are quick to say their pets aren’t just companions, they’re like members of the family.
“I’m really happy to have Bentley,” said teenager Aisha Simmons, as she walked the black Labrador retriever around her neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington.
Her family adopted the dog about a year ago from a local animal shelter. They were among the thousands of people across the country who bought, fostered or adopted animals last year during the coronavirus pandemic.
With the stress of the pandemic, more people suddenly wanted a pet to snuggle and to have as company to prevent loneliness during quarantine, Kurt Krukenberg, president of the Humane Society Silicon Valley in San Jose, California, told VOA.
“With more people working from home, this may be first time they felt they could take care of a pet,” he said.
This was wonderful for dogs and cats in shelters or foster situations waiting for their “forever homes,” said Amy Good, director of development at the Dane County Humane Society in Madison, Wisconsin.
“The number of adoptions we had last year were absolutely phenomenal, and there were even times we were out of animals for people to adopt,” she said.
Jim Bouderau, the executive director of the Tompkins County SPCA in Ithaca, New York, said the shelter got an influx of people who wanted to adopt a cat or dog.
During this flurry of adoptions, though, some shelters were concerned that people adopting pets might not have fully thought through the commitment and might choose to return them later.
“I think people with pandemic pets have bonded with them, and so I’m not surprised we’re seeing fewer returns now,” said Gina Hardter, marketing director for the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria in Virginia.
"We’re actually seeing a lower number of animal returns or surrenders than we did in 2019,” she told VOA.
New owners in San Jose are also sticking with their pets, said Krukenberg.
“We were worried about whether this would happen, but fortunately that turned out not to be the case,” he said.
Good agreed, saying, “Our returns are the lowest we’ve had in five years.”
“More people are figuring out ways to keep their animals,” said Steve Bardy, executive director at Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando in Florida, “because they appreciate what a dog or cat adds to their lives.”
“There is no way I would ever bring back Luna,” said Amber Wright from Chevy Chase, Maryland, also near Washington, as she cuddled the little cream-colored pup she adopted last year.
Some animal welfare organizations say they are beginning to see more returns or surrenders from people who already had a pet before the pandemic began, though.
Kerry D’Amato, executive director at Pet Haven in Minneapolis, Minnesota, said her group is getting pandemic pet returns, not from her organization, but from shelters where people can walk in and take any dog without being screened. A year and a half later, a number of these people, “who were not equipped to handle behavioral challenges,” want to give up the animal that they never properly trained or socialized during quarantine.
The returns are also happening for other reasons.
Financial strains related to the pandemic are causing people to rethink pet ownership, Cindy Sharpley, executive director of Last Chance Animal Rescue in Waldorf, Maryland, told VOA.
“People were at home getting unemployment benefits during the pandemic and now they’re not,” she said.
In other cases, with parents returning to in-person work and children returning to school, there may not be anyone to care for the pet, she said. Other pet owners are suffering from long-term effects from COVID-19 and are forced to part with a pet, she added.
Now, another change is making life difficult for pets and their owners. The federal freeze on eviction moratoriums that recently expired means thousands of people, and their pets, may have to find a new place to live. This concerns Hardter, who said the organization would offer temporary boarding for these animals until their owners can find a home that allows pets.
“We are also working on a foster program where volunteers would temporarily care for the pets in their homes,” she said. “So, our goal is to try to keep people with their pets.”