Pandemic-related abandonment rates depend on where you live

Studies have shown that interactions with animals may help ease depression and anxiety in humans, especially under stressful conditions. Other research indicates that stress and poor wellbeing of dog owners can negatively impact their pets—stress that might lead some pet owners to abandon or relinquish their pets, further negatively impacting those pets.

The pandemic, with its many stressors—financial worries, fear of infection, social isolation, etc.—might seem like a tailor-made situation to further test those findings.

Researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of British Columbia teamed up to do just that. In a new study launched in March 2020 and published in November, the researchers analyzed data from a searchable online database (Yad4) of animals who need homes in Israel. Yad4 serves as a national database for dog adoption and includes the vast majority of abandoned dogs who need homes throughout the country, including dogs surrendered to shelters by their owners.

The researchers say that reports that companion animals could be potential COVID carriers led to speculation early in the pandemic that dog abandonment might skyrocket—a fear that’s been realized in many parts of the globe, Time magazine reports.

Karalyn Aropen, vice president of operations at AAHA-accredited East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Oakland, California, had braced herself for that possibility.

“When COVID first hit, we had many concerned pet owners reach out to us to discuss surrender for a number of [pandemic-related] reasons,” Aropen told NEWStat. Cited reasons included financial hardship, moving out of the area due to job loss, and fears of COVID infection from animals.

But the study’s findings belied that fear: the rate of dog abandonment remained unchanged—in Israel, at least—as the pandemic ramped up. And as COVID-induced social and economic restrictions increased, pet adoptions skyrocketed instead.

Prior to the pandemic, there were around 26 adoption requests per day. At the height of Israel’s lockdown in April of 2020, the number of adoption requests averaged around 113 per day.

When the researchers tracked trends in worldwide Google searches for “adopt a dog,” they found a similar pattern: As social isolation increased, so did the number of people seeking to adopt pets.

As part of the study, the researchers surveyed 312 people who’d adopted a dog during the pandemic to find out why. Of these, 38.5% stated they’d been thinking about adopting a dog for a long time and being at home during the COVID-19 lockdown seemed like a good opportunity, 37.8% said they’d planned to adopt a dog regardless, and 8% said the pandemic made them feel lonely and/or stressed and they believed that adopting a dog might help.

Interestingly, 9.3% said they’d heard about the problem of dog abandonment in the media and wanted to help. Meanwhile, only 2.6% of respondents said they’d already returned or relinquished their newly adopted dog or were considering it. And their decision to do so had a significant association with their self-assessment as being stressed by pandemic-related concerns.

Aropen said East Bay’s veterinarians were able to dissuade many pet owners from surrendering pets early on by drafting a statement—using guidance provided by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—that explained while there were a few cases of pets who appeared to catch COVID-19, there were no documented cases of the infected pets spreading it to people.

In addition, East Bay was able to provide resources such as pet food and affordable veterinary care to help pet owners with financial concerns, which also helped: “While we did see a small increase in surrenders at the beginning of the pandemic, [in many cases] we were able to help people keep their pets,” she said.

Looking back, an animal-adoption boom may be one of the few upsides the pandemic had to offer.

Photo credit: © DanBrandenburg/E+ via Getty Images

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