Over the past two years, local animal rescue organizations across the country have been struggling. While we never lose sight of the incredible progress that’s been made by local shelters and rescues in curbing the intake of pets (down tens of millions in the past 50 years), recent challenges have been sobering, to say the least. According to Shelter Animals Count (of which the Humane Society of the United States was a founding member and ongoing sponsor) shelters are caring for an astounding 245,000 more companion animals than they did in 2022

Despite extraordinary efforts to find loving homes for adoptable pets and to keep as many pets as possible with their families, euthanasia has increased almost 18% compared to 2022 and 33% compared to 2021. In part because families struggle to find affordable housing that will accept dogs over 25 pounds, there has been an 85% increase in euthanasia of dogs compared to 2021. Adoptions have slowed, creating a backlog of animals in need. This combination of factors creates conditions that can induce compassion fatigue and burnout among those working tirelessly to save animals.

The good news is we can all do our part in helping to solve this challenge. We just rang in the new year by reflecting on how we collectively made the world better for animals in 2023 and by making resolutions to do even more in 2024. As this animal shelter crisis has been unfolding, we have rallied together to analyze the short- and long-term needs and to bring help to local animal shelters and rescues. 

In the short term:

  • Animals need to move out of the sheltering system. Until shelters and rescues can create space in their foster homes and facilities, they won’t be able to dedicate as many staff and resources to prevention programs, including free spay/neuter for community pets, pet food for families in need, and policy change to address the root causes that result in families making the heartbreaking decision to surrender their pets. Our state directors have been advocating for state and city proclamations to encourage adoption of shelter pets in Indiana, Iowa, New York, North Carolina and Illinois. In Oregon and Ohio, shelter pets became the official state pet, helping to raise the status of rescue animals in the public eye. We can make space in shelters by adopting pets and doing our collective part to prevent pet surrenders by helping a neighbor or friend through hard times.
  • Fostering a pet (even for just a few days) makes a difference. Some shelters offer weekend sleepover programs where you can pick up a shelter dog on a Friday and return them on Sunday. Research shows these short-term outings reduce stress for shelter dogs and they provide critical information on the kind of home the dog is best suited for. We know that animals in shelters don’t get enough sleep, so two days out of the noisy shelter to catch up on much-needed rest can make a huge difference in their wellbeing. Even better, you’ve freed up a kennel for another pet in need. If enough people commit to doing even short-term fosters, those kennels would be empty for longer periods of time, allowing staff to take a breather, some of them for the first time in years.
  • Shelters and rescues are almost always looking for people to help with animal care, administrative tasks, cleaning and laundry; and many shelters offer guidance on making inexpensive toys for residents or gathering pet care supplies like old towels and blankets from friends and neighbors. Volunteers often fill crucial gaps when paid staff in animal shelters are stretched thin. Reach out to your local organization to find out how you can help provide some much-needed support and breathing room for those managing day-to-day operations.
  • In some shelters, the majority of animals arrive as lost pets. Another way to help is to return lost pets to their families directly, without involving the shelter. If you find an animal, check collars for ID tags or have the animal scanned. A local veterinary clinic, pet supply store, police department or fire department will often have a microchip scanner on site.  

In the long term:

  • Animal shelters need more public and private funding to implement programs that prevent animals from entering their doors in the first place. Such programs could, for example, enable animal services departments to find the families of lost pets rather than drive those animals to a shelter and hope that owners are able to find them. A fully staffed animal shelter would ideally have the capability to use a case-management approach to help families in need, connecting them to veterinary care and pet-friendly housing resources to prevent pet surrenders. We’re trying to get creative with how we can help keep people and pets together by advocating for funding for programs that consider both ends of the leash. For example, Oregon approved $1 million in grant funding for homeless and domestic violence shelters to accommodate and accept pets so that individuals in crisis aren’t forced to choose between surrendering their beloved pet (to an already overburdened shelter) and their own personal safety. In New York, we worked with the New York State Animal Protection Federation and partners to secure $5 million in support for matching state grants to support capital improvement projects in the state’s shelters. The Companion Animal Capital Fund is the nation’s first funding stream for capital projects benefitting New York’s animal shelters; the state has dedicated over $33 million to the fund since its launch in 2017. Reach out to your municipal or county shelter to learn about their budget process and then send a letter to county or city officials supporting increased funding.  You can send the same message to community and other foundations in your region, asking them to support shelters and groups with appropriate grant support.
  • Systemic issues that drive pets into shelters must be addressed through policy change. We continue to advocate for the passage of laws that prohibit discriminatory housing policies. In the animal world, these are policies that prevent families from securing safe and affordable housing due to the size or perceived breed of their pet. Affordable housing that is more inclusive of all kinds of pets prevents families from having to make the heartbreaking decision between having a home and keeping their animals. Through policies that improve access to care, such as the expansion of telemedicine, we are working toward a more equitable and fairer world for pets and the people who care about them. Contact your state director to learn more about what legislation we are pursuing in your state this year and how you can help improve the lives of people and their pets in your home state.
  • Through grant-funded mentorship programs, we are working one-on-one with organizations across the country to identify community-oriented solutions to increase pet-inclusive housing, strategically and humanely reduce the volume of cats and kittens in shelters, and build foundational support for under resourced shelters in need. You can help by volunteering for your local trap-neuter-return program for community cats or by purchasing necessary items on your local shelter’s wish list. 

As you consider your New Year’s resolutions, we hope you’ll join us in resolving to support local shelters and rescues through adoption, fostering, donations and advocacy. 

Follow Kitty Block @HSUSKittyBlock.