Dr. Liz O’Dair, a family medicine physician working at a community health center in western Massachusetts, had long wanted to adopt a dog. But she hadn’t quite found the right time to do it. With work, travel and other commitments, there just never seemed to be a great time to adopt a pet, and her two cats kept her company well enough, with fewer needs than a dog.
But in mid-March, the world changed when the coronavirus pandemic was declared.
Overnight, workplaces closed, and like many other people, O’Dair began working from home a lot more, offering visits with patients via telehealth platforms. With that increased time at home, suddenly getting that companion pet she’d always wanted seemed a bit more realistic. “It presented this great opportunity for me to adopt a dog,” she says. Plus, having a dog would help stave off some of the isolation that accompanied the radical change in lifestyle so many of us have had to cope with since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“I’m single, and I live by myself, so it felt like really the right time for me,” she says.
[Read: Telehealth for Your Pet.]
A Rush on Adoptions and Fostering Applications
“Unfortunately, the timing was terrible because everybody else had the same idea,” O’Dair says of trying to find a dog, a process she started early in the pandemic.
“A lot of shelters and rescue organizations experienced an uptick in adoptions” as soon as stay-at-home orders were announced around the country, says Joanne Yohannan, senior vice president, operations at the North Shore Animal League America in Port Washington, New York.
The rush of adoptions NSALA experienced in March and April was similar to what it experiences other times of the year, but it has been sustained because more people were home and had time to spare on bonding with and training pets. “Normally, we’d see an uptick in the beginning of summer when kids are off from school, but because of COVID-19, the trend started a few months earlier,” she adds.
Fostering has also seen an increase, says Christa Chadwick, vice president, shelter services at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, headquartered in New York City. “In the first few weeks of stay-at-home orders, the ASPCA saw a nearly 70% increase in animals going into foster care through our NYC and Los Angeles foster programs, compared to the same period in 2019.”
In addition, nearly 1,600 people completed the ASPCA’s online foster application during the first two months of the pandemic, representing an increase of approximately 400% when compared to 2019, Chadwick adds.
However, the rate of adoptions and fosters varies by community and by shelter organization, depending on how many animals are available and the needs of the community. This nuance has been captured over the past several months in weekly Shelter Watch Reports issued by 24PetWatch, a pet protection services company that aggregates data from 1,191 animal welfare organizations across the U.S.
According to its July 17, 2020 COVID-19 Impact Report, the number of dog and cat adoptions were actually down 27% when compared to the same time period a year ago, but fosters were up 9%. Many states have seen a significant decline in the number of animals entering shelters as volunteers observe stay-at-home orders, but the increase in fosters suggests that more people are willing to take on sick or older pets that might otherwise not have found a safe home to call their own for any period of time.
“Because this is an ever-changing situation — and each shelter faces unique challenges — adoption and fostering statistics will vary at any given time,” Chawick notes. “But there’s no doubt that the response from community residents across the nation to support their local shelters by fostering vulnerable animals has been enormous and unprecedented.”
For O’Dair, the rush to adopt meant she had to be patient to find her pandemic pet.
Eventually, she connected with a shelter in Connecticut that brings dogs up from the southern United States. “So that’s how I found Sophie,” a 2-year-old, 30-pound terrier-boxer mix. “She’s a chestnut brown color with white around her face and white paws, and she’s got spots running down her chest,” O’Dair says. “She’s adorable and sweet and she’s a very low-key dog. I needed to find a dog that was going to get along well with my two cats, and she’s very good around the cats, who are still a little freaked out by her.”
She brought Sophie home about a month ago. They’re still adjusting to the new routine, but “she’s just a love, and I’ve totally fallen in love with this dog.”
Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
This connection with a pet is a key part of why so many people have turned to shelters to adopt or foster animals since the pandemic began and why they can actually be good for your health. Pets can make us healthier in a number of ways, including:
— Offering companionship. For O’Dair, who’s single with no kids, the prospect of being sequestered away from loved ones was difficult. “Aside from examining patients, I haven’t touched another human being in close to six months,” she says. But cuddling with Sophie makes that absence of human touch a little less onerous.
— Instilling a routine. During the pandemic, many people have found their social lives curtailed and their day-to-day lives completely upended. Some are barely ever leaving the house. Having a pet to care for gives owners “a reason to get out of bed each day,” Yohannan says. “Feeding, walking and playing with the animal provides structure to a day when otherwise, maybe there wouldn’t be anything going on.”
— Providing a purpose. Beyond just having a daily routine, caring for a pet can provide a strong sense of purpose. Pet ownership is an important responsibility, and one that can be a powerful antidote to depression and anxiety. It can also be a great way to help kids learn about accountability and how to chip in with chores and other tasks.
— Offering opportunities for more exercise. Dogs need to walk and run regularly. Cats like to play. While it might be challenging to take your goldfish out for a swim, the fact is that certain pets do provide a reason and a daily requirement to get moving, often outside. Daily walks are a great source of exercise for you and Fido — as well as a way to improve mental health.
— Reducing blood pressure. “Study after study has shown that having a pet can reduce blood pressure,” Yohannan says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that pet ownership can be a key to reducing stress, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
— Offering mental stimulation. Engaging with an animal can provide a rich source of mental stimulation. Having a pet can also help ward off depression and anxiety.
What to Know Before You Adopt
While pets can provide a health boost, adopting a pet is a lifelong commitment that shouldn’t be entered into on a whim. You’re essentially bringing on a new family member, so consider carefully whether you’re really ready for pet ownership.
Here are some questions you should think about carefully before you head to the shelter.
1. What type, size and temperament of animal is best for me?
Do you want a big dog or a tiny cat? A ferret or a bird? A turtle, a rabbit or a fish? Any of these critters can make great companions that provide health benefits, so think carefully about what size and type of animal your home and lifestyle can reasonably accommodate.
O’Dair says she knew she wanted a dog, and was looking for one on the smaller side with an easy-going temperament that would tolerate the two cats she already had. The fact that Sophie is super cute was just icing on the cake — her temperament and disposition were far more important than what she looked like. “Everyone is going to have their own unique list of things that they want or need,” she notes, but think about what will work best long term for you and your family.
Chadwick adds that “while each shelter is different, pets are generally assessed by qualified staff and then introduced to potential adopters based on the likelihood of compatibility. Every animal is an individual — even those within a specific species or breed — and shelter staff are expert at making matches.”
She also urges potential adopters to “keep an open mind and heart when meeting animals from a shelter or rescue, as you may feel a connection with a pet you’d never considered before, like a senior animal or even those of a different breed, size or species.”
This willingness to take in pets who might normally be rejected has been “the silver lining to the cloud of COVID,” Yohannan says. “People have really pushed the reset button in their lives. They’re really examining what’s important — their family, their pets, their partner.” This has created space for folks to reprioritize and realize they do have the capacity to take on a senior pet or one with a chronic condition who needs a bit more care than a younger or healthier animal. “That’s been a really heartwarming trend,” she says.
2. Who is offering this pet for adoption or sale?
Adopting is, to many people, the superior option because it saves the life of a homeless animal rather than supporting for-profit breeders that can sometimes be the source of additional animals that end up in shelters.. But, if you’re looking for a purebred animal, you may have to purchase from a breeder. If that’s the case, Yohannan warns that you’ll need to do your homework and make sure you know who you’re dealing with.
“I’ve been reading about people purchasing puppies online and sending money and being scammed. The puppy never existed. It’s happened to quite a few people, so my best advice is to never purchase an animal sight-unseen. There’s always people willing to take advantage.”
Rescuing rather than buying can circumvent some of these potential issues, Chadwick notes, and helps other animals. “Adopting from a shelter or local rescue organization saves more than one life by freeing up space and resources for another animal in need.”
3. What’s life going to be like after the pandemic?
“We’re not always gonna be in lockdown,” O’Dair says, “and there’s going to be a point where life is going to revert, at least in some ways, back to what we knew before. Make sure this is something that you’re really willing and able to do.” For example, consider who will walk your dog when you return to work or go on a trip.
If you’re working with a reputable shelter, those issues should be addressed when you first apply for an adoption. “Even as they adapt their policies in response to COVID-19, animal welfare organizations are still following effective protocols to ensure pets match their adopters’ lifestyles and can stay with their owner, even when those owners return to a post-pandemic schedule,” Chadwick says.
4. Can I afford to give this animal the care it needs?
O’Dair says that between adoption fees, vet visits, installing a fence in the backyard, training and food, she’s spent roughly $2,000 bringing Sophie into her life. It’s a great investment that will pay dividends in the future, but it’s not an expenditure everyone is going to be willing or able to make. Be sure to do some homework to estimate how much you can expect to spend on a new animal each year and determine if you can afford that.
Yohannan recommends looking into getting pet insurance for unforeseen medical problems and to keep up with routine veterinary care. Because just like with people, pet health problems are less costly to resolve when they’re caught and dealt with early, before they have a chance to become big concerns.
5. How long will I have to wait?
Once you’ve decided that adopting a pet is the right answer for you, you might have to wait a bit until the perfect animal becomes available. Yohannan urges you to stay patient and “communicate with your local rescue group or shelter. A lot of these groups have fewer volunteers” because of the pandemic, and thus are working as quickly as they can with limited help to rescue animals and adopt them out. “It’s making the adoption process take longer,” so make sure you’re willing to be patient .
6. Should I consider fostering first, or instead?
Chadwick recommends fostering as a means of helping animals find forever homes without the life-long commitment of adoption. “Fostering can allow you to change an animal’s life for the better and is a rewarding experience for those who choose to become caregivers.”
7. What happens if I lose my job?
In addition to the public health crisis, this coronavirus pandemic is also featuring a major economic downturn that has cost millions of people their jobs. Is your job at risk? If so, will you still be able to take care of your pet?
Currently, surrenders are not a big issue, Chadwick says. “At this point, we have not seen an increase in owner surrenders or stray intakes at the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City compared to the same time period in 2019. And based on our conversations with animal welfare professionals across the country, that trend is not currently evident on a national level.”
But as Yohannan notes, “the future is uncertain. We have to be prepared for increased surrenders and help them find new, permanent, loving homes.” She recommends “setting aside a little bit of money each week for emergencies.”
8. Who will take care of my pet if I get sick or die?
It’s probably the piece you least want to think about when adopting a pet, but you do need to give some thought to who will take care of your pet if you get sick and are hospitalized or otherwise can’t take care of the animal. Is there a family member, close friend or other loved one who’s willing to take care of your furry family member if you can’t? “You have to have a very good plan, especially if you live alone,” Yohannan says.
If for any reason you can no longer care for your pet, “we encourage any pet owner looking to rehome an animal to first reach out to their local animal shelter. The shelter can often provide assistance to enable the pet to stay in a safe and loving home,” Chadwick says.
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