Tools & Information

Black and white cat lying in cat enclosure

Setting the Record Straight on Shelter Returns

You might have noticed recent media coverage that makes it seem as if pets who were adopted during the pandemic are being returned in droves. This viral media narrative is misleading for several reasons, missing the mark on the real challenges surrounding shelter animals and pets. Sensational coverage such as the New York Post piece “Pets adopted during the pandemic are being returned in record numbers” or Salon.com’s claim that there are “drastic increases in animals being abandoned,” don’t paint an accurate picture of what is really happening at shelters around the country.  

While data from 24PetWatch does indicate that, for the first time since the pandemic started, shelter intake began increasing in March and continued into April, that is hardly the whole story. Due to the unique circumstances of 2020, comparing 2021 numbers to 2020 alone isn’t an accurate indicator of pet surrender/returns. For some context:  

  • In 2020, intake across all shelters across the nation was down 23% as many shelters faced partial closures and reduced services. However, the number of pets being surrendered or returned in 2021 remain below 2019 levels (a more "normal" baseline) at the 1,191 U.S. shelters and rescues that are part of the 24PetWatch data set. 
  • In April 2021, net intake was up 60% over 2020, but remained 14.5% below 2019 net intake. 
  • In April of this year, owner surrenders were up 84% vs. 2020, but still down 12% vs. 2019. Returns saw a similar increase: up 52% vs. 2020, but still 29% below 2019. 

Thankfully, a few media outlets are reporting some counter-balancing pieces to the sky is falling rhetoric, like Chicago’s WGN: “While some shelters in the country report a massive increase in returns of adopted animals, the Chicago region, on the whole, has not.”  

Brown pit bull type dog standing up on red haired person's lapThe report continues: “’Our returns went up a little bit, but that’s normal for us.  Last year was such an anomaly, so many adoptions, a really low return rate, so things are just going back to normal,’ said Heather Owen of One Tail at a Time.” 

Susanne Kogut, president of Petco Love, published a LinkedIn piece that makes a similar point: “Recent headlines reading ‘Pandemic puppies being returned to animal shelters as people go back to work,’ are concerning except for one simple fact—it isn't true.” 

The alarmist media coverage tends to inaccurately characterize why people must surrender pets and what we can do to prevent that, but there has been some contrasting media response to that message as well. The Washington Post sums it up rather succinctly in the editorial “No, people aren’t giving up pandemic pets because they’re bored” by pointing out that “serious problems in pet owners’ lives are more likely to drive surrenders than bad character.”

We know from our recent data analysis that the top reasons for surrendering a pet are consistent both prior to COVID-19 and during and are primarily due to human issues, not pet issues. We also know that there are many legitimate reasons for surrendering a pet. Housing is the second most common reason cited for giving up a pet. Sometimes an animal isn’t the right fit for a family or needs a different environment to thrive. Or, sometimes the owner has a hardship or health challenge where they can no longer take care of their pet.  

Demonizing people who can no longer give their pet the home they envisioned is not the way to change behavior, nor is it helpful in advocating for necessary policy changes that encourage keeping pets and families together or in building strong rapport with the community. Demonizing people also alienates the very people we want & need to help support our life-saving work at shelters. 

As the Post puts it, “The best way to improve animal welfare is to look more clearly at what drives people to give up their pets, and at what reform could make it easier to keep animals and their humans together.” 

Coping with Today’s Challenges 

While 24PetWatch data shows that both returns and owner surrenders are down 14.5% below 2019 levels, adoptions are also down, about 20% lower than pre-pandemic numbers. No wonder some shelters are facing more challenges that ever before, as more animals are coming in than going out. This is layered onto the typical daily challenges that occur in sheltering: normal intakes, the influx of kittens at this time of year, plus the enduring impact of staffing and budget shortages. 

Brown and gray tabby cat standing in front of cat bed

Rather than focus on shelter struggles as if that’s something brand new or paints the public as irresponsible and uncaring, let’s look at the full picture. We’ve seen many positives over this past year, the most potentially game-changing of which were actions like increased fostering and adopting that can move the industry toward community-supported sheltering. Instead of condemning the community, how about we reach out to them again and ask for their help in continuing to offer positive outcomes for the animals in our care? 

We have seen that when the community, shelters and governments are all working collaboratively, it provides better support for pet owners, better outcomes for pets, and more efficiency in the system, as well as puts less stress on animal shelters and their employees.  

Thankfully, both national and local animal welfare organizations are continuing to invest in resources that offer solutions to overcome the hurdles standing in the way of positive outcomes—and some are even stepping up their game. 

Last year, American Pets Alive! founded a new organization, Human Animal Support Services (HASS), that is dedicated to keeping pets out of shelters. HASS’s Keeping Families Together toolkit touches on preparing for a looming eviction crisis by offering concrete ways to support people and pets experiencing homelessness and build partnerships with other social service agencies. 

At Best Friends, we redesigned our Network partners website to incorporate an ever-growing library of resources that focus on keeping pets and people together and reducing intake. Many are listed below, and we will be publishing a second editorial at the end of this week on a replicable program to help neonates. 

We will continue to gather resources and data that supports the goal of moving the needle and keeping shelters from being inundated by animals coming into their doors for any reason—even the fallout from the pandemic.  

For more information, check out the following content: 

Podcasts:  

Reimagining field services: Helping people and pets in Sacramento 

Community-supported kitten care 

A new day for animal sheltering in the United States 

Keeping families together 

Access to care – Shannon Glenn 

More than 40 million Pets at Risk of Eviction 

Editorials:  

Keeping Pets with their Families  

Latest Data Analysis Reveals Most Common Reasons for Owner Surrender 

New Report Shows How Social Vulnerability Affects Lifesaving 

How to Keep New Fosters Engaged Post-Pandemic 

Town Halls:  

Keeping Families Together: Navigating the Blurry Lines Between Neglect, Cruelty and Lack of Access to Care 

COVID-19: Preparing for the Housing Crisis 

Brent Toellner
Senior director, national programs
Best Friends Animal Society