Tall Tails: Was There Really a COVID Adoption Boom?

There’s a story we were told about animal adoptions during the pandemic. It goes something like this: When COVID hit, animal shelters saw pets flying out of the kennels. The ASPCA reported 23 million households adopted a pet during the pandemic.

That furry friend was just what the doctor ordered for many who were first-time work at homers. Dogs quickly found their way into Zoom backgrounds, becoming the new must-have office mate. This seemed like the happiest of outcomes for the shelter community: Dogs finding their furrever homes with people who thought pet ownership was out of reach because of busy jobs and travel schedules.

But is this story true? Probably not.

“From my standpoint, it didn’t happen,” says John Volk, a senior consultant with Brakke Consulting. “There may have been minor changes in the dog population during COVID. But if anything, they were minor.”

A more likely reason for the rumors of a boom: People who previously wouldn’t have owned a dog decided they wanted to adopt.

“There’s no question that there were people who acquired dogs during the pandemic that might not have otherwise because they were home,” Volk says. “But there were other people who didn’t acquire dogs who might have otherwise because they had to work during COVID and not from home.”

For example, people who worked in all categories of service were negatively affected by COVID. Not only were they unable to work from home, they also did not receive some of the cash infusions other categories of workers received.

Another data point to consider: Breeders couldn’t predict the pandemic, so they didn’t have a bumper crop of puppies and kittens on hand. And while some shelters were empty, it wasn’t necessarily because of a spike in adoptions.

24Petwatch aggregates data from 1,200 animal welfare organizations in the United States. During COVID, the organization released data on the impact of COVID on U.S. homeless pet populations in the care of animal welfare organizations. From March 13, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2020, 24Petwatch reported a 24% decline in adoptions including a 31% dip for dogs and a 17% decline in cats. The group also reported a 34% decline in the number of dogs and a 24% decline in cats entering shelters. Alternately, 17% more dogs and 23% more cats entered foster care.

Volk says there could be many reasons fewer pets were entering shelters. For example, if grandma passed away during this period, the family might decide to keep the dog instead of surrendering to a shelter.

Another reason some shelters were empty? Larger shelters that have adoption engines often take pets from other more rural shelters when they have capacity. But the mechanism to move those animals wasn’t happening as much during the pandemic, meaning some of those pets didn’t make it into the larger shelters.

What happened to all those COVID kittens and pandemic puppies?

Fast forward a few years to the new reality of companies calling their work force back to the office. What happened to the COVID kittens and pandemic puppies? Many are likely still in their homes.

By mid-2021, we began to hear reports of shelters filling up, and rumors of mass pet surrenders arose. Some speculated that a return to office was driving this movement. But when 24Petwatch explored the data, the organization made an interesting discovery: Intakes of pets were below 2019 numbers — a good thing — but pets leaving the shelters were dropping even more. This meant pets were staying in shelters longer.

Indeed, as recently as October of this year, intakes and outcomes have both fallen vs. the prior year, but the length of stay climbed slightly, from 30.93 days in October 2022 to 31.68 days in 2023. This might seem like a minor shift, but it’s part of the overall trend that’s keeping shelters at higher capacity. The length of stay in October 2020 was 27.52 days, and it was 28.58 a year later.

One possible reason it’s taking longer to get these pets into homes: finances. It’s no secret that pets are expensive. Indeed, data from John Gibbons, president of A GPS for Pet Businesses, showed that veterinary spending was increasingly driven by higher income households, while families with an income of $99,000 or less have decreased spending.

Volk points out that as discretionary income returns to normal, so are veterinary visits. He says many practices are seeing a return to pre-pandemic levels of veterinary visits.

Bottom line? Volk says we should think of the pandemic as a blip when we look at the numbers. The real problem may not be to solve shelter intakes or outcomes, but instead to answer the question of what’s driving longer lengths of stays in shelters.

Looking ahead: How veterinarians and the profession can act

So, what does this mean for the veterinary profession? The path forward is two-fold.

  1. Veterinarians may find opportunities in business models that serve pet owners with incomes of $99,000 or less who have decreased spending. Read more about Dr. Karen Felsted’s ideas for opportunities in business models. This could lead to a healthier pet population and support the public’s view of veterinary medicine as a profession that cares.
  2. The veterinary industry can play a role in solutions that reduce the length of time pets are spending in shelters. Hosting shelter days at pet- and veterinary-focused businesses and social media campaigns that highlight adoptable animals could be part of the solution. All it takes is imagination and the will of the animal health industry to make change happen.

Portia Stewart, a senior companion animal consultant with Curious Plot, is the former team channel director for dvm360 and former editor of Firstline magazine. She spent 19 years working in companion animal health media before joining Curious Plot.