It appears dogs and cats can't get sick from COVID-19, but that doesn't mean the coronavirus pandemic isn't a threat to animal shelters, rescue organizations and the millions of homeless, helpless critters they care for.
Like everyone else forced to improvise in the face of an unprecedented crisis, America's animal shelters are coming up with creative ways to stay "open," so they can continue pairing people and pets.
Americans are rushing, well, not to their local shelters but to their phones and laptops to check out available pets, to donate money and supplies, to share the word on social media about rescuing homeless balls of furry fun.
Appointment-only and call-ahead adoptions, drive-up fostering and curbside adoptions, online training and at-home volunteer projects (such as making pet toys) are some of the solutions being used nationwide to help care for vulnerable animals during the pandemic.
Contrary to fears, there is no sign so far of rising number of dogs and cats surrendered by people too sick to take care of them, or people who have lost their jobs and can't afford to take care of them. Not yet.
"We have not seen an increase in owner surrenders or stray intakes at the ASPCA Adoption Center in (hard-hit) New York City due to the virus, and based on our conversations with animal welfare professionals across the country, that (uptick) is not evident on a national level," says Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the national ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"I just confirmed with a random sampling of shelter leaders that they are not seeing an uptick in animal intakes at shelters in their communities," says Jim Tedford, president and CEO of the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement, the professional organization for the shelter industry.
Still, shelters are bracing for that possibility and planning for it, both leaders say.
"We don’t know what will happen as the numbers of sick and deceased increases, nor do we know what impact the financial stresses might have," Tedford says "But for now we’ve seen communities step up and help reduce shelter populations rather than the other way around."
How are they doing that?
Tune in to the Facebook Live show "Home Adopting Network," an hour-long virtual tour of the SPCA of Wake County, North Carolina, which introduces some of the dogs and cats available for adoption.
"We got the idea from the Home Shopping Network," says Darci VanderSlik, a veterinarian and the shelter's director of communications. "We show the pets, give them treats and belly rubs, talk about their personalities. It allows people to 'be there' without the crowds." It seems to work: "We did 58 adoptions in the first six days. We are so excited!"
Meanwhile, Americans are signing up to be temporary foster parents to pets. They're applying online to permanently adopt and talking to counselors in phone interviews. They're waiting in parking lots outside closed shelters for a text telling them to pick up their new pet curbside.
Why? Maybe to help alleviate their own anxieties while trapped at home during a coronavirus lockdown. Maybe they've got more time to care for a pet while working from home. Or maybe they just want to ensure they can go outside for exercise: Walking the dog is still allowed.
And in case the adoption fees are a problem, Cathy Kangas, a member of the national Humane Society's board and the CEO and founder of PRAI Beauty skincare brand, is committing PRAI for Paws to cover all adoption fees for a month at 10 shelters in nine states to encourage more adoptions during the crisis, starting Friday.
“We want to offer shelters a lifeline," said Kangas, a longtime campaigner for animal welfare and cruelty-free beauty products, in a statement. "In many cities, animal shelters are considered essential services, but their resources are stretched and the only solution they may have is to euthanize animals and lay off their workers. We can’t let this happen.”
Like many others, Kangas says research shows the health benefits of pets, including reduced blood pressure, increased cardiovascular health, reduced anxiety, and a reason for outdoor exercise.
"You can take them for a walk, get fresh air, get vitamin D – there are wonderful health benefits from having a pet, and they can help you cope with the stress of this virus," says Julie Kuenstle, vice president of communications for the Houston SPCA.
Houston is one of the country's largest animal shelters, but coronavirus has forced it to indefinitely stop pet adoptions. Instead, it's moved to clear shelters by increasing temporary pet fostering, thus its "desperate" website appeal for more people to sign up.
Up north at the Wisconsin Humane Society, they had so many new foster parents sign up – 400 – in just a few days that it briefly crashed the website, says Angela Speed, vice president for communications. Within five days, she says, their shelters were cleared out, with 159 animals adopted and 160 in foster care.
"People stepped up in a huge way," says Speed.
"We all recognize that animals are a source of comfort, love and stress reduction in a chaotic, unprecedented time," Speed says. "And I say that as I’m sitting with my dog on the couch."
In Boston at the Massachusetts SPCA, shelter leaders have decided to focus on pushing permanent adoptions and keep fosters as a fallback strategy, but it's now adoption by appointment only. Like many shelters, they're conducting virtual tours to re-create the in-person experience of connecting with a shelter dog or cat.
After the virtual tours started last week, "we saw an immediate spike in adoptions, we saw an increase in viewership as time went on and in the phone calls we were getting," says Mike Keiley, director of adoption centers for MSPCA. "It culminated this past weekend when we did 30 adoptions, which is pretty healthy in March in the Northeast."
The key message he's hearing is that people want to help. "They want to do good and if they're animal lovers, they want to help shelters help animals, and that means an increase in donations, too," Keiley says.
Whatever the reason, it's a boon to some of the 7.6 million homeless dogs and cats who enter public and private shelters every year, according to the Humane Society of the U.S.
"Over the past week, we have seen a nearly 70% increase in animals going into foster care through our New York City and Los Angeles foster programs, compared to the same time period in 2019," says Bershadker.
Tedford cites similar numbers from a Pethealth database that covers about 1,400 shelters and organizations around the country: Adoptions are up 102% from the prior week, 100% from last year, he says, and fosters are up 193% from the prior week and 197% compared to this time last year.
Intakes are down 68% from this time last year because shelters have stopped taking new animals in all but emergency-related situations, he says.
As might be expected, shelters are under unprecedented stress from the crisis, with reduced staffs and volunteers as well as closures. Not even natural disasters can compare, says Kimberley Alboum, director of shelter outreach for the national Humane Society.
"We have never navigated anything like COVID-19 – it's completely uncharted territory for shelters and rescues," Alboum says. "Hurricanes and tornadoes … impact one area or region and we can move animals, fly them or drive them to shelters elsewhere to make room for incoming animals. We can’t for this because it’s a national disaster."
A big disruption: Coronavirus has largely grounded animal transports because of state lockdowns and airline flight reductions. Tedford's database shows transfers and transports are down 62% compared to this time last year.
That means homeless pets from overburdened Gulf states, for instance, can't be flown to winter-stressed corners of the country where there aren't as many strays for adoption this time of year.
"We depend heavily on a transport program to move 5,000 dogs and cats (a year) into adoptive homes in Northern states, from ours and other Southern shelters," says Ginny Sims, director of Southern Pines Animal Shelter in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which began early to push adoptions and fosters to empty out Southern shelters as much as possible. . "It's incredibly challenging in the South, where we already have big overpopulations" of strays.
Animal shelters are considered "essential services," such as grocery stores and pharmacies, that remain functioning under a government-ordered lockdown, even if they are closed to the public. Someone has to tend to the animals, including veterinary care for injured or sick animals. And in many states, shelters are still taking in strays or surrendered animals.
But shelters have been forced to stop neutering and spaying as "non-essential," despite years of promoting the procedures as crucial to reducing the 1.5 million dogs and cats euthanized every year in the U.S, according to the ASPCA.
Growing numbers of animals will need temporary or permanent shelter as the summer puppy and kitten season is approaching. At the sprawling Houston SPCA on Tuesday, someone dumped a box of 6-week-old puppies in the parking lot outside the adoption center in 80-degree heat.
"This may continue, unfortunately, (even though) abandoning animals is a crime of animal cruelty in Texas," says Kuenstle, adding that the puppies will go into foster care.
Keiley says the MSPCA is preparing for the possibility of increased coronavirus-related pet surrenders because no one can predict if or when it might happen.
Among other things, donating to local pet-food pantries and no-contact deliveries of supplies to shut-in pet owners can help. Even Meals on Wheels delivers pet food supplies in some areas, he says.
"Keeping people and their pets together … we feel that’s our mission in our community," Keiley says.