February 6, 2023
By: Mandy Behbehani
Published: December 27, 2022
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the adoption team at Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek placed photos of nine puppies on its website.
About a thousand emails poured in from people wanting the animals. “It was crazy,” said the shelter’s executive director, Elena Bicker. “Now, it’s crazy the other way.”
With a dramatic increase in the pet population, private and public animal welfare organizations around the nation and Bay Area are in crisis, packed to capacity with animals they are struggling to find space or homes for.
“We’ve been busy, busy, busy,” said Deb Campbell, spokeswoman for San Francisco Animal Care and Control, a city shelter that, like many others, has seen an influx of large dogs that nobody wants.
The reasons are numerous. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, more than 23 million American households — nearly 1 in 5 nationwide — adopted a pet during the pandemic.
Because spay/neuter clinics and veterinarians were shut down, owners could not get their new pets fixed in 2020 and 2021, which, a new study from University of Florida researchers found, is equivalent to 2.7 million animals not spayed or neutered.
With this many animals reproducing, the animal welfare system may fall further into crisis, and euthanasia rates may rise. According to Shelter Animals Count — a nonprofit that tracks outcomes for shelter pets — the euthanasia rate for dogs jumped from 5.2% to 7.4% in the first half of 2022.
Other factors include the lack of access for new pet owners to dog trainers or affordable vet care resulting in animals with behavior problems; a return to in-office work; and the shortage of vets.
And then there’s the price of kibble. Inflation and supply chain issues have led to what many are calling “petflation,” because pet supplies, services, food and medical costs have skyrocketed.
Research from the ASPCA conducted in June 2022 found that 21% of dog owners and 25% of cat owners relinquished their pets for reasons of expense.
“Many surrenders were due to pandemic adopters not having dog training and vet care and going back to work, with some economic element,” said Bicker. “Shelters were all cleared out in the pandemic, but the number of animals for adoption has returned to pre-pandemic levels in such a way that some municipal shelters, like Fresno, are resorting to euthanasia.”
A Shelter Animals Count report covering the first nine months of 2022 found that 7.3% more animals entered shelters than left them.
And a Forbes online survey of 2,000 current and past dog and cat owners this summer found that 63% of pet owners said inflation has made it more difficult to pay a surprise veterinary bill.
Three percent of the owners said that in the past year, they gave their pet to an animal shelter, rescue organization or to a friend or family member. “It’s very difficult right now,” said Nancy King, CEO of Pets Lifeline in Sonoma, who noted her animal population is up by 7% with 25 surrenders, all of them large dogs.
“A major factor has been economics,” said King. “Our adoption rate is down 10% because people are factoring costs in their decision on whether to adopt.
I don’t envy vets, but one emergency situation with a pet can bankrupt people. You can’t even walk in (to an emergency hospital) now for less than $1,000.” Jennifer Scarlett, CEO of the San Francisco SPCA, confirmed her shelter’s partners, SF Animal Care & Control and shelters in the Central Valley, are inundated with animals.
“People are finding boxes of puppies abandoned in orchards,” she said. “When your national intake numbers have gone up and you see the number of large dogs in shelters, it’s off the charts. They’re in shelters and not getting out. It weighs on my mind.” Buffy Martin-Tarbox, communications manager for the Peninsula Humane Society/SPCA in San Mateo, said surrenders are up. “
We’re definitely seeing more surrenders and have a lot more animals in the shelter as compared to previous years,” she said. “In fact, we have so many kittens we’re now offering a two-for-one adoption special, which in my almost six years at this job has never happened.” “We think it’s behavior problems and so on,” said Martin-Tarbox.
“But there has been an increase in costs and there is some indication that this is potentially affecting people’s ability to care for their animals.” John Gibbons, who compiles and analyzes data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said the ongoing increases in pet-related expenses outstripped the national U.S. Consumer Price index in November for the fifth straight month.
In November, costs for all pet-related items were up by 12% over the previous year and 16.4% over November 2019. Pet food was up by 15.7% over 2021 and 16.4% over 2019, and veterinary services were up 11% over November 2021 and 19.2% over November 2019.
Escalating vet costs Kathleen Hamilton, who lives in Novato, has paid out over $5,000 this year on vet costs for her four-year-old Anatolian-Pyrenees mix, Hammy, who she got as a stray. She paid $1,312 to have Hammy’s two broken teeth fixed, over $1,400 for his broken toenail and $1,000 for his annual physical.
Hammy now needs surgery for a torn ACL, which her vet says will cost between $4,500 and $7,000. Hamilton is putting the surgery off until May because her pet insurance and care credit are used up for this year. “I hate to delay until May,” said Hamilton. “I just don’t know if he can wait, poor dog. And the vet said, ‘Once you do one knee, you have to do the other.’ How can I come up with $14,000? He’s the best dog in the world, and I’m not considering surrendering him, although I have sworn to not get another dog as I cannot afford the outrageous vet bills.”
Janet Williams, president of Marin Friends of Ferals, which is currently inundated by abandoned cats, has noticed hefty veterinary prices too. “A vet in Petaluma quoted one owner $2,000 to spay a pet, a procedure that cost from $75 to $150 pre-pandemic for feral cats,” she said. “Owners are also waiting two months for an appointment. Lots of vets have quit or retired.”
Corporations buying up the pet industry make things harder, said independent vets. John Volk, a senior consultant at Brakke Consulting, estimates that 25% of the 30,000 veterinary clinics in the nation are owned by large chains.
The rate is much higher among the 1,200 emergency and specialty vet hospitals, about 75% of which are owned by chains. Marin County’s only emergency pet hospital, Pet Emergency & Specialty Center of Marin, has been sold three times in the last three years to private equity firms — most recently to Veritas Veterinary Partners, which owns about 100 emergency hospitals and specialty clinics.
For their part, doctors are overwhelmed and overworked. Vet Debra D’Angelo, who commutes from Davis to the Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek, while also doing relief work at Bay Area spay/neuter clinics, emergency hospitals and specialty clinics, said: “I have more demand than time, and sometimes I’m working six and seven days a week, often overnight at an emergency hospital.”
Dr. Amandeep Sandhu, co-owner of East Bay Veterinary Clinic in Oakland, said vets face a raft of challenges. One is in finding and keeping staff, which she said is so difficult she is now paying her six techs double what they were getting. Another is hefty increases in drug costs. “I just got two emails today saying this medication is going up by 12% and another is also going up by 12%,” Sandhu said. And then, there are the emotional challenges. “Every day you see dogs that are euthanized because their owners can’t afford the cost of treatment,” Sandhu said. “These are pets that could have been saved if we weren’t so busy and the owner’s financial situation was different.”
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