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Pets are being returned to Tampa Bay shelters after pandemic adoption boom

People emptied the shelters to bring home some comfort during quarantine. But work, illness and job loss are bringing a spike in pet returns.
This time last year, the Hillsborough County Animal Shelter, shown here, and others were getting emptied as people sought comfort in the pandemic. But in the past month or so, as people begin to return to work and school, shelters are reporting a spike in pets being returned.
This time last year, the Hillsborough County Animal Shelter, shown here, and others were getting emptied as people sought comfort in the pandemic. But in the past month or so, as people begin to return to work and school, shelters are reporting a spike in pets being returned. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2016) ]
Published May 13
Updated May 13

This time last year, Americans were taking on new furry family members with glee, looking for a little comfort during an uncertain time. Shelters were emptied, to the delight of their rescuers.

But in recent months, as people returned to work and school, things have changed. Shelters across the country are reporting a spike in pets being returned.

Related: Column: Look at my tiny dog if you feel dead inside

One Seminole pet agency, FLUFF Animal Rescue, said over the past month, it has gone from one or two pet surrenders a week to one or two per day. “We were afraid of that when this first started,” said Kelly McLaughlin, the organization’s adoption coordinator.

Last July, people at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay in West Tampa were arriving before dawn to stand in line in the dusty parking lot for the 10 a.m. opening. Some camped out overnight.

Visitors lined up at dawn at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay on July 15, 2020, to adopt pets at the facility. Some even camped out overnight.
Visitors lined up at dawn at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay on July 15, 2020, to adopt pets at the facility. Some even camped out overnight. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Pinellas Animal Services had adopted all their dogs in April 2020, a first. The Friends of Strays in St. Pete said its list of volunteers willing to foster dogs and cats at their homes as the animals awaited adoption — which is far better for the animals’ health and adoption chances — at one point grew almost too long to manage.

Related: Why this pandemic might be good for dogs

But now pets are being returned, often with vague reasons like “they weren’t a good fit.” And animal care agencies have reported an increase in strays and abandoned dogs.

Manatee County Animal Services said it has seen a 49 percent increase in dogs and cats brought to the shelters in the last month and compared to the same time last year. The American Veterinary Medical Association noted a nearly 60 percent rise in pets taken to shelters recently, too.

It’s not just busy lives or a return to normal. There are sad stories of people who lost jobs, got sick or were evicted and can’t keep their pets.

“Unfortunately, that’s part of it too,” McLaughlin said. “People who are not working or possibly getting evicted can’t find a place to take their dogs. And we’ve also had to take in dogs because people have gotten sick from COVID-19 and they were just crying, because they can’t take care of them.”

Even for those who don’t give up their animals, one side effect of people returning to work is that their pets may suffer separation anxiety, which can sometimes lead to destructive behavior.

Doug Brightwell, director of Pinellas Animal Services, said his agency has not seen a surge in pets being returned, but he fears they might as people return to work.

“Now that everything is opening back up we are waiting to see what happens,” Brightwell said of sudden behavior changes. “That’s going to be the biggest reason animals will get returned. I’m going to advise patience to help the families get through this.”

Veterinarians advise that establishing a routine now can help ease the transition. To make it easier on your pet, start by taking “time-outs” with short departures and then work your way up to a full eight-hour day.

“Exercise your pet before leaving,” said Hans Wohlgefahrt of Manatee County Animal Services, “and to further help reduce stress while you are gone, give your pet enrichment items.”

Suggestions include peanut butter-filled chew toys like Kongs and Nylabones, or puzzle feeders, which make pets work for their food by using their paws or noses to open a compartment, dig into a container, or navigate a maze.

“Encouraging a sense of independence in your pet will help with separation anxiety,” Wohlgefahrt said.