Suspension of spay/neuter & intake services due to COVID-19 cuts adoptions by a third from 2019
NEW YORK CITY––Celebrating rehoming every dog and cat in custody soon after COVID-19 shutdowns began, animal shelters from coast to coast are suddenly––and predictably––weeping, wailing, and tearing hair about having no adoptable animals to offer in response to strong demand from shut-in people with unexpected time on their hands and missing companionship.
Few people in shelter management, however, seem to be making––at least in public statements––the fairly obvious connection between the adoptable animal shortage and nearly two decades of trying to achieve “no kill” status by ever more determinedly discouraging owner-surrenders of dogs and cats.
Today surrendering either a cat or a dog with bite history, especially a pit bull, can be more difficult than trying to arrange hazardous waste removal, which can often be done with a single telephone call.
“Bring us your unwanted litters and we’ll fix the mother for free.”
But erecting barriers to intakes of owner-surrendered animals is only half the story behind the adoptable dog and cat shortage.
The other half is animal shelters shutting down low cost and free spay/neuter services for the duration of the COVID-19 shutdowns, even when many and probably most could have remained open as “essential services,” had they tried.
For decades U.S. animal shelters that operated spay/neuter clinics never had a shortage of adoptable puppies and kittens, at least during the spring/summer “puppy and kitten season.” The standing deal they offered the public, popularized by the North Shore Animal League America, was “Bring us your unwanted litters and we’ll fix the mother for free.”
With that deal off the table, those puppies and kittens are still being born, and those unsterilized mothers are still at large to birth more puppies and kittens later in the year, but few if any of them are entering the shelter-and-rescue network.
Some of this was anticipated
Observed Neighborhood Cats national program director Bryan Kortis in his April 15, 2020 ANIMALS 24-7 guest column We need to open up spay/neuter – now!, “When the shutdowns in our country began due to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in early March 2020, the animal welfare field reacted quickly. Shelters were closed to the public, services were curtailed to the bare minimum, and cages were emptied through adoptions and recruitment of new foster homes. At the urging of leading voices and organizations in the field, spay/neuter of cats, dogs and other companion animals came to an abrupt and almost complete halt––right at the start of the annual “puppy and kitten” season.”
Added Spay First! founder Ruth Steinberger in her April 28, 2020 ANIMALS 24-7 guest column COVID-19: animal shelter “experts” circle back toward pet overpopulation, “A dear friend once shared the adage, attributed to Herman Wouk, ‘When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.’ Never has a better example of this adage been seen than in the current movement by so-called shelter management experts to support a return to intact release of shelter pets as a first response to challenges in sheltering during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Pet adoption rates have actually gone down”
Both Kortis and Steinberger anticipated the exploding puppy and kitten birth rates already seen here and there, as did many readers who wrote to comment, and as ANIMALS 24-7 did in supporting editorials, but none of us realized then the paradox that would follow: that more puppies and kittens would coincide with plummeting adoptions, because the animals are at large, not coming into shelters.
That paradox may have been described first by Quartz health and science reporter Katherine Ellen Foley in her May 14, 2020 article “Pet adoption rates have actually gone down because of coronavirus.”
Wrote Foley, “Despite the increased interest in adoption, some data suggest that overall adoption trends have leveled out over the past two months. Why? There simply aren’t enough animals available to adopt.
“According to data from 24HourPetWatch, a pet microchip company that collects data from roughly 1,500 US shelters and rescue centers,” Foley reported, “cat and dog adoptions have actually decreased by about a third compared to the same period last year.”
ASPCA becomes Exhibit A
Acknowledged American SPCA president Matt Bershadker to Foley, who somehow got an answer out of a chief executive who has never in five and a half years deigned to respond to a question from ANIMALS 24-7, “We did see an initial spike in adoptions in early March, But they have since leveled off.”
Continued Foley, “Bershadker says this is partly because the organization has had to close its shelter doors in New York due to safety concerns. They’ve instead moved these animals to foster homes. They don’t appear to be the only ones,” Foley wrote.
Foley politely did not mention that the ASPCA, under Bershadker, just ahead of April Fool’s Day 2020 joined several other national animal charities in urging U.S. shelters to sidestep or seek suspension of requirements that dogs and cats be spayed or neutered before adoption.
“Fostering for cats has skyrocketed”
This, ANIMALS 24-7 estimated at the time, is likely to result in about half a million additional puppy and kitten litters both nationwide during the balance of 2020, with no mechanism in place to ensure that more than a small percentage ever become available for adoption.
“Based on the data from 24PetWatch, fostering for cats has skyrocketed, while dogs in new foster homes have tapered off,” Foley wrote, not mentioning that most of the dogs available for fostering in recent years, let alone the past two months, are pit bulls, often with bite history.
“Anecdotally,” Foley went on, “shelters have had a hard time filling up with new animals they can pair with potential owners.”
Said Patricia Kennedy, executive director of City Dog Rescue in Washington, D.C., to the online periodical DCist, “We simply aren’t able to intake enough animals with the three closed county shelters not taking stray animals and what appears to be a decrease in owner surrenders during this time.”
Indian street animal population swells
Around the world, in New Delhi, India, South Asia correspondents James Oaten and Som Patidar on May 14, 2020 affirmed the ANIMALS 24-7 prediction of six weeks earlier that because of suspensions of spay/neuter services, hungry dogs and cats becoming problematic in residential areas in the developing world could undo decades of work to reduce fear of rabies and boost appreciation of the animals’ role in preventing disease by controlling rodents.
“India is home to an estimated 35 million stray dogs, the highest number of any country,” Oaten and Patidar opened, even though India has had a federally subsidized Animal Birth Control program focused on dogs since 2003.
“Cows and cats are also a common sight on city streets. The problem has only become worse during the coronavirus pandemic,” Oaten and Patidar continued. “The animals [normally] live off food scraps thrown out by local residents, street vendors and restaurants, as well as on what is provided through the many feeding programs around Delhi.
“But many animals are now wholly dependent on the feeding programs,” Oaten and Patidar observed, “with food waste scarce under India’s strict lockdown, due to residents staying at home. A high number of pets have also been abandoned in recent weeks over fears the animals could spread coronavirus.
Rumors fuel abandonments
“Unfounded rumors that pets were responsible for spreading coronavirus throughout China were shared widely on WhatsApp, the preferred messaging service in India,” Oaten and Patidar explained. “Widespread animal abandonment became prevalent in the early days of India’s lockdown, prompting state governments and animal authorities to issue alerts that animals were not responsible for spreading the virus.
“In a national televised address in late March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Indians to help feed street animals during the lockdown,” Oaten and Patidar summarized. “But many residents refused to heed the call, and owners continued to throw pets out onto the streets during the lockdown. Cows were kicked off small metropolitan dairy farms due to a drop in demand [for dairy products], and donkeys used to transport tourist supplies to remote areas were also abandoned.”
Parts of the U.S. are not all that far ahead of India
Some U.S. cities were already not all that far from the prevailing conditions in India even before the shutdown of spay/neuter services.
“Houston has tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of stray dogs and cats on its streets,” pointed out Tena Lundquist Faust of Houston Petset to ANIMALS 24-7 on April 3, 2020.
Only a few months of additional stray dog and feral cat births could return Houston, and many other U.S. cities, to the conditions prevailing before the many years of “Bring us your unwanted litters and we’ll fix the mother for free” enabled animal charity donors, volunteers, and leadership to begin daydreaming of achieving a “no kill nation.”
Cat abandonments just ahead?
Now the world, including the U.S., may be close to a wave of cat abandonments––and a collapse of the newfound enthusiasm for cat fostering that Foley noted––due to growing apprehension that cats can both harbor and transmit COVID-19.
“Reports of human-to-feline transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2),” better known as COVID-19, “and of limited airborne transmission among cats, prompted us to evaluate nasal shedding of SARS-CoV-2 from inoculated cats and the subsequent transmission of the virus by direct contact between virus-inoculated cats and cats with no
previous infection with the virus,” offered a four-member international team in a letter published in the May 13, 2020 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The ensuing experiment confirmed two-way COVID-19 among six cats, with all six infected after five days of exposure to three cats who had been deliberately infected.
“Cats may be a silent host” of COVID-19, say researchers
“There is a public health need to recognize and further investigate the potential chain of human-cat-human transmission,” the team concluded. “This is of particular importance given the potential for SARS-CoV-2 transmission between family members in households with cats while living under ‘shelter-in-place’ orders. Moreover, cats may be a silent intermediate host of SARS-CoV-2, because infected cats may not show any appreciable symptoms that might be recognized by their owners.”
Recalled Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED] animal disease and zoonoses moderator Arnon Shimshony, “A serosurvey in China revealed 10-15% positive cats in Wuhan,” where COVID-19 was first identified.”
Parallel investigations are now underway in Italy and Germany, Shimshony reported, while noting that, “There have been no reported cases of humans being infected by their pets.”
Nonetheless, Shimshony concluded, “In view of the growing evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infections in domestic cats, stray cats should be kept away, as far as possible from the premises of sheltered facilities for the elderly to protect the health of the inhabitants and their owned pets.”