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Packed animal shelters reflect 'disturbing pendulum shift' in the pandemic's wake

Little kittens in a cage of a shelter for homeless animals
Okssi
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Adobe Stock
Little kittens in a cage of a shelter for homeless animals

News brief

In 2020, animal shelters emptied as people rushed out to adopt pandemic pets. However, that situation has changed for the worse.

Now, many shelters are filled to the brim.

“We’ve seen this disturbing pendulum shift of adoptions going down … relinquishments going up, and shelter populations really surging to unmanageable levels,” said Dr. Julie Levy, a professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida.

Researchers at the University of Florida, including Dr. Levy, have identified one of the reasons why: There’s been limited access to spay and neuter surgeries.

They’d been hearing complaints throughout the pandemic, she said. Some were from owners over increased wait times for the procedures. Others had more serious concerns.

“Shelters were not able to get the animals that they were adopting out spayed and neutered in a timely manner. Programs that focused on trapping and sterilizing free-roaming community cats were not having access. And we were starting to go through multiple kitten seasons without adequate access to surgery,” she said.

That prompted Dr. Levy and her colleagues to look at where and how many of these procedures were done. Their results were published this week in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

The researchers examined data from 212 clinics nationwide (which all used the same cloud-based computing software), which together spayed or neutered more than a million animals in 2019.

But that number dropped about 10% over the last two years, which translates to 190,818 fewer surgeries performed.

Applied nationally, that suggests millions of cats and dogs went without.

“Not only did (clinics) miss nearly three million surgeries over the past two years, but they also aren’t even doing as well as they did three years ago,” said Levy.

Shutdowns obviously affected these numbers, but there have been veterinarian and technician shortages, too. Levy said that is an industry-wide problem.

While the researchers found that every region had about the same rate of declining spay/neuter procedures, it affected the South and Southwest the most. Levy said that's because that region tends to perform the surgeries on more animals overall.

Anecdotally, she's heard that more people experiencing housing troubles have been surrendering their pets, too, but it’s hard to say how much any single factor is filling shelters.

Levy implores animal lovers to offer up help at shelters and adopt or foster wherever they can.

She hopes more communities also turn their focus to keeping pets with families and offering support, so dogs, cats and other critters don’t end up caged or euthanized.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Simone Guerios, noted in a press release that increased spay and neuter access over the last 50 years “is the single most important driver of reduced pet overpopulation and euthanasia in animal shelters.”

“The rise in subsidized spay-neuter access helped drive the euthanasia of shelter pets in the United States from an estimated 13.5 million in 1973 to 1.5 million in 2019,” she stated.

But now, for the first time in decades, Levy said we’re seeing that trend reverse.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.