COVID-19 has made the past year and a half challenging, difficult and painful for so many individuals and institutions across the world. The animal sheltering and rescue community is no exception.

Last summer, as the pandemic worsened across the U.S., shelters responded by growing programs to keep people with their pets, and urged communities to foster animals who were tragically displaced from their families. Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming community response, many shelters are still seeing animal intake at levels like those of 2019, a trend that may last for months.

Many shelters across the U.S. are sounding the alarm that they need extra help. (National Geographic recently explored why shelters are facing particularly tough challenges right now, in a story featuring Lindsay Hamrick, our director of shelter outreach and engagement.) Earlier this month, the Chicagoland Humane Coalition issued a joint statement informing the public of the crisis. Last month, shelters across South Carolina declared a state of emergency to draw public attention to the challenge. Our South Carolina state director Janell Gregory gave us the view from where she sits and speaks to why fostering is so powerful: “Local shelters desperately need people to open their homes—even if temporarily—to adoptable animals and to support programs that keep pets in their homes.”

Shelters typically face challenges during the summer due to an influx of homeless kittens, and this year, with the ripple effects of the pandemic and natural disasters, like Hurricane Ida and the Caldor wildfire in California, shelters and rescues are especially stretched. Our disaster trainings and preparedness work aim to help with these issues, reminding people and communities to make disaster plans so that they can evacuate with their animals.

Issues stemming from the pandemic continue to contribute to a perfect storm facing shelters, too. Widespread staffing shortages are affecting shelters and veterinary clinics, causing systemic burnout, which reduces their ability to care for the number of pets and homeless animals in need. In addition, many spay/neuter surgeries were put on hold last summer as the pandemic worsened, which resulted in a backlog of both pets in shelters and owned pets waiting for sterilization and other critical medical procedures. Among other impacts, this may be contributing to an increase in the number of kittens entering shelters this year.

In 2020, our SpayTogether program provided grants, on-the-ground assistance and discounted supplies to shelters and clinics resulting in more than 75,000 spay and neuter surgeries to help address some of the backlog, but animal welfare still has a long way to go. Our Pets for Life and Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS) programs also stepped in to help communities care for their pets during the pandemic, but there are still tens of thousands of pets in need.

Unfortunately, the ending of the federal eviction moratorium may also result in the heartbreaking relinquishment of loved pets to shelters. While shelters have significantly increased their programs to keep pets and families together with resources like pet food pantries, low-cost or free medical care or helping families find pet-friendly housing, a systemic change of the nation’s housing policies is needed. Housing instability is one of the reasons we advocate for an end to misguided housing polices enacted by rental property owners and operators and homeowners’ associations that ban certain breeds and sizes of dogs, or refuse to allow cats, who then fill shelters.

How you can help

  • Fostering is an incredibly powerful way to help animals and support the animal sheltering and rescue community. Shelter animals who may be awaiting medical procedures or placement get to enjoy the love and comfort of a home. And fostering isn’t reserved solely for shelter pets already displaced from their families but also as a temporary option for pet owners who need to be hospitalized or are searching for pet-friendly housing. Fostering also helps shelters with extreme staffing shortages by helping to bring the populations of animals in shelters to more sustainable levels.
  • Now is also a wonderful time to adopt an animal. Through September 19, many shelters are participating in Clear the Shelters, during which adoption fees will be reduced significantly or may even be waived. Research has shown successful adoptions do not require payment of a fee, and that free adoption promotions can be a lifesaving measure to engage the community in bringing home a new pet.
  • If your home is full up on furry family members, you can help shelters in other ways. Consider volunteering at or donating to your local shelter or rescue to help with their costs or to cover someone else’s adoption fee. You can also check out the shelter’s wish list to provide supplies for a foster home. Here’s a useful tool that can help you find shelters and rescues near you by typing in your zip code. In addition, supporting a local pet food pantry or emergency medical fund may prevent families from being separated from their pets.
  • You can also be a megaphone for your local shelter by visiting its social media pages and sharing posts featuring pets available for foster or adoption—among your family, friends and networks may be someone who’s just waiting to lock eyes with their next companion animal.
  • Learn about and fight breed-specific legislation to help ensure that no animals are turned out of their homes because of bad policies.

Last year, as the spread of COVID-19 pushed people into their homes, many of us were heartened by the stories of dogs and cats getting adopted as loving family members during such a tough time. (And thankfully, despite some fearful rumors, there is no evidence that people who adopted pets during the pandemic are now returning them en masse.) Animal lovers have the power to continue to come together at this particularly difficult time and make a real difference for their communities, human and animal.

Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.