By Katie McHenry & Kathleen MacKinnon

It’s no secret that economic instability has gripped the world since the COVID pandemic began in January 2020. As society has reopened, the world has struggled with pent-up consumer demand, as well as labor and supply chain shortages that have led to a roughly 7 percent global inflation rate, according to UN estimates over the summer.

Here in the United States, inflation rates have reached 9 percent. Cities across the country – including here in the greater Washington, D.C., area – are grappling with a housing crisis, with the demand for affordable housing far outpacing the supply. We’re continuing to face an ongoing post-pandemic increased demand for consumer goods, rising (then falling) gas prices, and a jumpy stock market as we stare down a global recession, which could mean another economic downturn and rising unemployment. What does that have to do with our companion animals?

While shelters and rescue groups across the country reported large increases in companion animal adoptions in 2020 and 2021, unfortunately, these organizations are again bursting at the seams with homeless cats and dogs, often surrendered by families who say they can no longer afford to feed them or to provide medical care. At the same time, fewer people are adopting companion animals, which would create more space for others to surrender their animals. Some shelters have resorted to stacking kennels in hallways to accommodate the sudden influx, and others have posted notices that they can’t accept any more cats or dogs. On a sadder note, some shelters have resorted to euthanizing perfectly adoptable dogs and cats simply because there is no room to house them.

What This Means for Companion Animals

No government entity or animal rescue organization is responsible for tabulating national statistics, so exact numbers are not available. However, from data collected from the American Pet Products Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association, the percentage of U.S. households with pets grew from 59 percent in 2017-18 to 70 percent in 2021-22. And, according to the ASPCA, 23 million American households adopted cats and dogs from shelters in 2020 and 2021. Locally, shelters were actually searching for animals to meet the demand, which had never happened before. With numerous jobs and classes being conducted virtually, as well as a cap on most travel, Americans were staying home and finding it easier to incorporate four-legged members into their families. We also saw a huge increase in the number of people offering to foster cats and dogs, enabling more to be rescued and adopted out.

But with a return to classroom learning and in-person office hours for millions of Americans in the spring of 2022, coupled with an economic downturn, some of those same adopters began returning their companion animals to shelters or rescue organizations. Per CNBC, the cost of veterinary care has increased by 10 percent since last year due to a combination of factors including inflation as well as a shortage of veterinarians. 

According to a second quarter estimate from the nonprofit Shelter Animals Count, the national forecast for 2022 is a 10 percent increase in shelter animal intake. From New Jersey to Texas, Michigan to Georgia, animal guardians are surrendering their pets for a number of reasons. In some cases, it’s due to housing issues (eviction, moving to a facility that doesn’t allow animals, relocating out of state), and in others, it’s an inability to afford the costs of caring for a pet. In some cases, families who adopted animals during the pandemic have found they no longer have the time to devote to them.

One of SPCA NOVA’s rescue partners in southwest Virginia has noted more pets with medical issues are being surrendered because their guardians can’t afford medical care for their animals – and sadly, starving animals are being surrendered there as well. We at SPCA NOVA have also noted a substantial decrease in available fosters during the spring and summer, with more people traveling to make up for lost time during the pandemic. However, as of October, the number of foster applicants for cats had increased significantly as summer travel ended.

We’ve identified the problems, but are there solutions?

Keeping Companion Animals in Homes

Rescue organizations and shelters around the country are working hard to keep companion animals in their homes by helping to provide food, grooming, medical care, and other resources to the pets of families in need.

The Animal Welfare Leagues of Alexandria and Arlington here in Northern Virginia, and the Humane Rescue Alliance in D.C., are three local organizations that offer pet food pantries and veterinary assistance on a case-by-case basis to residents of their communities. They also offer emergency short-term boarding to area residents experiencing a health or housing crisis. The Fairfax County Animal Shelter provides a list of resources to help residents find more affordable spaying/neutering, vaccinations, and financial support for veterinary care, as well as a pet pantry. The Humane Society of Fairfax County also has a pet pantry for its residents. 

In Northern Virginia, two options for reduced-cost veterinary services (including dental work and surgeries) include Anicira, a nonprofit veterinary clinic in Manassas, that offers a range of payment plans and in some cases provides veterinary care free of charge, and Helping Hands in Richmond, which specializes in reduced-cost veterinary surgeries. Both sites list pricing for dental care, surgeries, and, in Ancira’s case, end-of-life care.

For those looking to reduce their pet care bills, news articles offer a variety of suggestions, including purchasing food in bulk, switching to less expensive brands when possible, learning to make treats at home, performing some grooming services at home (such as bathing or nail clipping), considering swapping pet sitting or dog walking services with neighbors, visiting animal clinics in less expensive areas, and – if it makes sense – purchasing pet insurance. Numerous shelters offer periodic vaccination clinics, and some rescue organizations, like SPCA NOVA’s Spay Inc., provide lower-cost spay/neuter referrals, regardless of income. The table at the bottom of this page can help pet parents find available pet food pantries and lower-cost veterinary services in Northern Virginia.

The following organizations can also help pet parents with financial needs related to veterinary care:

How You Can Help

There are numerous ways for caring citizens to help prevent or alleviate overcrowding at shelters and rescue organizations. First and foremost, spay/neuter your cat or dog to help prevent overpopulation.

You can also donate money or supplies, but just as importantly, your time: volunteer at your nearby shelter or rescue organization, or sign up to become a foster parent (SPCA NOVA’s cat fostering application can be found on our website). Fostering will not only help ease the burden at shelters and rescue organizations, many of which are continuing to experience overcrowding, but also allow animals some downtime away from the stress and noise of the shelter. You can choose the length of time you agree to foster, whether it’s a few weeks, several months, or longer.

And if your home and heart have the space, consider adopting a companion animal. Many overwhelmed organizations have hosted “clear the shelters” events to make room for ongoing surrenders.

Finally, although the resources mentioned here are a starting point to help alleviate the financial burden some dog and cat guardians might be experiencing, the list isn’t exhaustive. Communities everywhere, including here in Northern Virginia, are working hard to keep pets and their families together. 

For any pet parents struggling financially, please also consider reaching out to your local shelter, or even your longtime veterinarian, to see what pet care assistance and payment options might be available to you. You might also try contacting friends or neighbors to trade pet sitting services instead of paying a sitter or boarding your cat or dog when you travel.

While the economic challenges are real for many people, resources are available to help mitigate these challenges. We hope this information will help more people keep their four-legged family members in their homes.

During the height of the pandemic, a 6th grade class at Langley School donates dog and cat supplies as part of their service project.
SPCA NOVA dog expert Lisa Reid helps a prospective adopter get acquainted with Ceci at a recent dog adoption fair.
Baby Princess visits a veterinary internist during the pandemic. Pets with medical issues are being surrendered because guardians can’t afford their medical care.