Intake On Paws: COVID-19’s Ongoing Impact On Animal Shelters
Every year, shelters in the U.S. take in hundreds of thousands of animals. Many keep track of the number of cats and dogs passing through, where they come from, and where they end up. When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, its effects on shelters showed almost immediately in the data.
This COVID-19 Impact Report shares information from a roughly equal number of municipal shelters, private shelters, and rescue groups across the United States. In total, 341 organizations shared intake and outcome data from the first six months of 2019, 2020, and 2021. The pandemic correlated with the following:
- The total number of cats and dogs brought in fell. The shelters took in 346,982 animals in 2019. The number dropped by 25% to 263,410 in 2020, then stayed roughly constant at 264,893 in 2020. Intakes include transfers from other shelters.
- The total number of strays, transfers, and euthanized animals all fell. The shelters took 172,070 strays in 2019, 123,540 in 2020, and 123,934 in 2021. Transfers (both in and out) fell from about 110,000 in 2019 to about 95,000 in 2020 and 2021. Year to year, the number of euthanizations fell from about 40,000 to 25,000 to 20,000.
- Adoption rates rose from 53% to 58% during the pandemic. News sources have suggested that shelters are bursting with animals carelessly bought and hastily returned. Could they be wrong?
- Cats and dogs tend to leave shelters alive. And more and more so – 85% had live outcomes in 2019, rising to 89% in the later years.
- Proportionally, intake and outcome types changed little. For example, animals given up by guardians stayed as a roughly constant fraction of total animal intakes.
Cats and dogs ended up in shelters for different reasons. Each year, about half were strays, though this proportion fell slightly during the pandemic: they made up 53% of total intakes in 2019 but 47% in the years after. About a quarter of shelter animals had been given up by guardians. About 19% were transferred in from other shelters. Only 2% had guardians intending to euthanize them. Finally, some animals didn’t fit the above categories, such as those born on site. “Other” intakes increased from 2% to 8% of the total when COVID struck.
Animals also leave shelters in different ways. Other than adoption and euthanization, 16% went to different shelters. 11% went back to their guardians. 3% returned to where they were found as strays, usually after being cared for or neutered. 2% escaped the shelters or the record. 1% died naturally in care.
For all its insight, the report has limitations. Shelters voluntarily submitted their information and some didn’t participate, so the data isn’t fully representative or peer-reviewed as such. Since mostly Western and Southern shelters participated, Eastern and Northern organizations may have less to glean from the results. Also, the report uses a single year, 2019, to represent pre-COVID times. So, it’s unclear how much of the variation between 2019 and 2020 was specifically caused by the virus — and thankfully, further information is available on the website. Finally, the observational nature of the data can’t explain why the data changed in the first place.
Why do shelters see fewer strays and guardian surrenders? Why have adoption rates risen and transfer rates stayed roughly constant? Even if we can’t know, we can guess. Maybe staying home gives people more time for companion animals — and maybe the pandemic stifled shelters the way it stifled so many other organizations, so fewer cats and dogs were rescued or transported about. We’ll need to keep observing these trends over time, especially as the pandemic continues.