How Companion Animals Fared During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic generated many changes in the lifestyles of Americans. For example, people lost jobs while others shifted to remote work and learning. Amid the pandemic restrictions, most people also had more time to spend at home. As such, some studies suggest that the pandemic supported companion animal adoption, especially as animal welfare organizations called to “clear the shelters” and would-be guardians sought ways to reduce their isolation-induced stress and loneliness.
To explore trends in companion animal guardianship in the pandemic era, the ASPCA commissioned a survey of more than 10,000 U.S. adults in May-June 2021. Respondents were asked whether they had acquired cats and/or dogs prior to March 2020 as well as after the onset of the pandemic, whether they had rehomed any of their animals since March 2020, and whether they were entertaining any thoughts about rehoming their animals in the upcoming three months. They were also asked to weigh in on their concerns about lifting pandemic restrictions and what drove them to rehome or consider rehoming their animals (where applicable).
Prior to March 2020, 47% of respondents had dogs and 33% had cats. At the time of the survey in 2021 these figures did not change, a finding that surprised researchers who expected more dramatic swings as a result of the pandemic.
How did people acquire their animals during the pandemic? For dogs, the most common sources were breeders (37%), individuals (e.g., friends, family, and neighbors) (24%), shelters or rescues (22%), and pet stores (14%). For cats, 33% were acquired from individuals, 24% from shelters or rescues, 19% from breeders, and 15% from pet stores. In comparison, data from 2017-2018 found that shelters and rescues were the most common source of dogs and cats (37%). The authors of this study hypothesize that the increase in pet shop and breeder-purchased animals during the pandemic might have been a result of decreased shelter supply and slowdowns in shelter operations.
On a positive note, 90% of dogs and 87% of cats acquired during the pandemic were still with their guardians at the time of the survey. Among those who rehomed their dogs, 50% were given to friends, family members, or neighbors; 17% were surrendered to a shelter or rescue; 13% had died, and 12% were sold. For cats, 37% were given to friends, family members, or neighbors; 26% were surrendered to a shelter or rescue; 13% had died, while 13% were sold.
The authors also explored which factors were associated with acquiring, and rehoming, a companion animal during the pandemic. For example, men were more likely than women to acquire an animal, but they were also more likely to relinquish their animal. Similarly, people aged 18-34, people with children at home, and people in the lowest income brackets were more likely to acquire and rehome their animals. Those who live in the South were more likely to get an animal than people who live in other regions, but Southerners were only more likely to rehome their animals compared to those in the Northeast. People living in rural and urban areas were more likely than suburban dwellers to acquire and rehome a cat or dog. Finally, people who already had an animal before the pandemic were more than four times more likely to acquire another one than those who did not. However, people who had acquired their animals before and after the pandemic were over seven times more likely, and those who acquired their first animal after the pandemic were three times more likely, to rehome an animal than people who acquired their animal before the pandemic and didn’t get a new one after March 2020.
What about people who were considering rehoming an animal but hadn’t done so already? Women and individuals over the age of 55 were less likely to consider rehoming a dog or cat, whereas households with children increased the odds. People with household incomes greater than $100,000 were 1.42 times more likely to consider rehoming than people with incomes less than $50,000. Those in rural and urban areas were more likely to consider rehoming an animal than suburbanites, but no other regional differences were observed. People who didn’t acquire a new animal after the onset of COVID-19 were less likely to consider relinquishing their animal than those who did acquire a new animal, whether or not those people already had animals in the home. Notably, those concerned with housing security, being able to afford veterinary care, and people working from home were more likely to voice thoughts about rehoming.
The results of this study can assist animal welfare organizations seeking to promote fair and responsible animal guardianship. For one thing, the authors argue that systemic inequalities present during the pandemic may have impacted animal guardianship during this time. Women were more likely than men to experience job losses and express concerns about working from home, while younger people may have found it more difficult to find affordable, animal-friendly housing. These are perhaps the reasons why women were less likely than men to acquire an animal during the pandemic, while people aged 18-34 were more likely than other age groups to rehome, or consider rehoming, their animals. Furthermore, 57% of respondents expressed concern about their financial security after the pandemic restrictions were lifted, while 45% were concerned about affording vet care for their animals. This is especially worrisome given the finding that respondents who showed elevated concerns about housing security and vet affordability were more likely to consider rehoming their animals.
Finding ways to help vulnerable animal guardians remain with their dogs and cats may reduce the likelihood of animals being rehomed. Animal advocates can push to increase resources and support for guardians, and they can reduce the number of animals relinquished to shelters by creating websites to rehome animals responsibly. Other helpful services would include preventative veterinary care, animal food pantries, and assistance with temporary, animal-friendly housing for families in transition from one housing situation to another.