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Are People Returning Pandemic Pets?

Claim

People are returning pandemic pets en masse.

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Decontextualized

Reporting

Social media and “shaming” often go hand in hand, as was the case with claims that pets were being returned en masse by selfish owners in May 2021 after adopting them at the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic:

In the above tweet, a user describes people “returning pets to shelters that they adopted during the pandemic” as “the worst people in the world,” and an official Daily Show tweet warned of “underprepared pet parents” sending pets back to shelters post-pandemic:

Overall, the rumors tugged at people’s heartstrings and generated a great deal of sympathy and disdain:

Discussions about the “worst” or “trash” people surrendering pandemic pets were not confined to social media. The New York Post did two back-to-back stories about the supposed trend, in an unexpected order.

On May 11 2021, the newspaper published “Pets adopted during the pandemic are being returned in record numbers,” followed by “‘Excruciatingly sad’: Shelters bracing for ‘selfish’ return of pandemic pets.” The first item began with some flexible verbiage:

Pet owners who adopted during the pandemic are reportedly beginning to ditch their animals at shelters now that COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted and workers are returning to the office.

“We’re starting to see now what we think will be a longer-term trend of some of those pandemic pets, if you want to call them that, starting to be given up,” Peter Laurie, who is chief executive of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in London, told Bloomberg Quicktake … ‘I think that’s going to happen as people gradually returned to offices, start thinking about taking holidays as well. I think very sadly we’re going to see [people] returning their dogs and cats because a lot of people bought puppies early in the pandemic,’ he told the outlet.”

Additionally, the New York Post led with “reportedly,” implying that they had not actually verified the information, and followed up with “starting to see what we think will be …”

The balance of the article (which drew its content from a video segment) contained a few more pieces of speculation and guessing, before adding this incongruous line:

Quite a few people have obviously come to us and said that they can no longer keep their animals because of financial aspects,” another shelter worker, Kate Collins, told the outlet.

That particular sentence was illustrative — Collins, a shelter worker, told reporters that people were surrenduring their pets due to “financial aspects,” which immediately painted a different picture. Readers clearly and predictably responded to the idea of self-centered pet owners returning living beings like unwanted shoes — but Collins said surrenders were largely caused by economic problems, which have been exposed, multiplied, and exacerbated by the pandemic.

The follow-up piece on May 12 2021 continued its speculation, collating rumors and inferences:

Prepare for the great doggy dump.

At the height of the pandemic, animal shelters reported record high adoptions, as bored home dwellers sought out new four-legged friends to keep them company in lockdown. But with reopenings afoot, the same shelters are braced for an influx of pets due to a countrywide epidemic of buyer’s remorse.

“People can be very selfish,” Penny Smith-Berk, who owns the Rescue Right animal shelter in Bedford, NY, told The Post. “Life is opening up again. You can impulsively buy a pair of shoes and never wear it again, but there are consequences for a dog — it’s excruciatingly sad.”

Smith-Berk’s comment had emotional heft, but it was a generalization and made no reference to actual surrenders — just an opinion that “people can be very selfish.” She mentioned one newly surrendered dog whose family could not care for him (although no one said the dog was sent back because pandemic restrictions were lifting), adding:

And she fears for the fate of other dogs who are the victims of this rampant second-guessing. “I’m quite sure that animal shelters are seeing a lot of owner surrenders, which are the first dogs to get euthanized,” said Smith-Berk. “I’m concerned about large numbers of dogs losing their life because of this.”

Although Smith-Berk’s concerns were understandable, they were also general — she worried that owners returning to work might return pets to shelters, and if so, those might be the “first dogs to get euthanized.” But still, the story failed to present any evidence that people were surrendering their pets en masse.

Another person quoted in the piece described rumors that they had heard that “at least a dozen” dogs had been surrendered. No part of that section of the article mentioned a time frame, a cause for the surrenders, or any connection to the pandemic. Further, the trainer described expensive pets:

Now, “I know at least a dozen personally” of returned dogs, [dog trainer Jessica] Del Guercio said, and she has “re-homed” a handful of hounds herself. And mutts, they were not — some of the dogs were exotic specimens costing upward of $15,000, plus price of a “flight nanny” to deliver the pet from a breeder who lives across the country.

The article concluded by reporting that pet stores don’t take returns (which had nothing to do with pandemic pets being returned), adding details about a “terrible reality” which did not appear to be supported in any way by the evidence presented in the articles:

“A pet store will never take an animal back — they don’t care if it’s not working out. And rescue organizations can’t take it back — they have no place for it to go,” said Smith-Berk. “The default here is that these animals will wind up in shelters and that’s a terrible reality.”

After reading both articles through, we concluded that the strongest evidence they presented was for the claim that stories about selfish people being mean to dogs are great for traffic and engagement.

The trend continued with a Maricopa County, Arizona news item on May 14 2021 (“People are returning pets adopted during pandemic, Maricopa County animal control officials say”) which quoted a county worker as saying she “noticed a large increase in animal surrenders,” but declined to say what that meant in numbers.

WebMD for some reason also decided to cover the great pet return panic of May 2021, but folded that into other stories around extremely unusual circumstances affecting pets, owners, shelters, and veterinarians:

[Moms and Mutts Colorado Rescue in Englewood, CO] has received more returns so far in 2021 than they typically have in an entire year. With more than 200 dogs available, they’re facing financial constraints and need more food to feed all of the animals.

In addition, lockdown measures prevented pet owners from getting their dogs spayed or neutered, so shelters are seeing an increase in the number of puppy litters that need new homes, the BBC reported.

However, not all shelters have seen an uptick in returns, according to WRGB, a CBS affiliate in New York. The Mohawk Hudson Humane Society, for instance, prepared new pet owners for the responsibility of adoption when the boom happened last year.

“The expectation is it’s a lifelong commitment for the life that you have this animal,” Ashley Bouch, CEO of the humane society in Menands, NY, told the news station.

Although brief, that excerpt included many relevant elements, including:

  • One shelter saw an uptick of returns in 2021 (but that shelters and vets were disrupted for much of the year 2020, hinting at delayed surrenders);
  • Because of disruptions in shelters and for veterinarians, dogs were not spayed or neutered, creating an influx of puppies;
  • Not all shelters reported an uptick in returns;
  • At least one shelter screened adopters in 2020 to prevent mass surrenders.

The fourth and final bullet point was an important element, because the challenging nature of pet adoption is well documented. Major news organizations, such as the Washington Post and NBC News, have reported prior to 2020 about how difficult it can be to adopt an animal, offering tips to navigate the proces.

In 2016, NBC News explained how rigorous pet adoption screening can be:

Katie (first name only used at her request), a longtime dog parent in Indiana, wanted to adopt a dog after her family’s passed away. She went to a local rescue specializing in Labs and Golden Retrievers, the breeds her husband had while growing up.

“The application itself was eight pages long,” she told NBC. “It asked some normal questions, like my background owning a pet. It also asked about any medical conditions we had, whether we were planning on having children, what our jobs were, and what our schedules were like. I thought those were a bit much, but I answered them.”

Their application was rejected. Why? “The staff member told me it was because I was not ‘a stay-at-home puppy parent,’” Katie said. “If we wanted to adopt a dog from this organization, I had to quit my job. That seems rather impractical, especially if we’re going to be paying for dog food and vet bills.”

Katie’s is not an isolated incident. Scroll through online reviews of many pet shelters, and stories like this show up. It’s a problem the ASPCA wants to address, the organization’s vice president of Research and Development Dr. Emily Weiss told NBC.

On May 11 2021, a USA Today article also spoke to workers at Moms and Mutts Colorado Rescue, reporting that their “amount of returns has doubled what they normally do in a year, with many of the animals being around 1-year-old.” The story also leaned firmly on “trends” and people “seeing” returns, before adding this paragraph:

Even though shelters across the United States are experiencing a huge return of dogs, it doesn’t appear to be a national trend. While owner surrenders were up 82.6% compared to 2020, they are down by 12.5% vs. 2019, according to Best Friends Animal Society.

But animal shelters were also affected by the pandemic; some were closed for several months in 2020, others didn’t accept surrenders, and still more reported inherently low “numbers” because of the disruptions of the preceding year. In February 2021, New York City’s WNBC reported that city shelters were closing with little notice, leaving pets and people in the lurch:

The doors to the Animal Care Center of NYC in East Harlem are closed to the public [on February 3 2021], with a bright red sign out front letting the community know that COVID-related staffing shortages are to blame. Risa Weinstock, the CEO of the city-run shelter, said more of their staff members are in quarantine than have tested positive for the virus.

That means far fewer people are available to walk, play with and care for the animals living at the center on East 110th Street. Now the shelter is frantically searching for homes … In 24 hours, the shelter has been able to find new temporary homes from 45 pets. Their biggest remaining need is helping large dogs find fosters with access to spaces to stretch their legs and play.

On March 19 2020, when the United States had yet to adopt mask-wearing measures and closures were still being debated, Today.com’s “During coronavirus closures, what happens to animal shelters?” reported nascent efforts before long-term closures really got underway, and also provided a glimpse into the chaos unfolding at that time:

[New York City shelter director Tiffany] Lacey said that while Animal Haven has a duty to the animals as a welfare organization, it is also concerned for the entire nation, city, state and its staff and volunteers. The nonprofit plans to have a skeleton staff by next week [in March 2020] but also hopes to have fewer animals as a result of adoptions and fostering, thanks to an “army of volunteers.”

Similarly, the Animal Care Centers of NYC restricted general admission on March 16 [2020]. Only interested adopters, fosters and emergency-only pet surrenders will be allowed in the building. “Unaccompanied minors as well as groups consisting of three or more people will not be allowed inside the building.”

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ most recent site update includes the suspension of various client services to help protect employees, clients and animals. The suspended services include spay/neutering mobile clinic services in New York and Los Angeles and preventive services in Miami like “vaccinations, deworming, microchipping, screenings for FeLV/FIV tests, Heartworm tests, or intestinal parasites, for otherwise healthy animals.”

A small news site in Levittown, New York addressed the ongoing effects on local shelters in July 2020 — four months after shelters were forced to hastily cease many core functions:

Adoption centers for animals are not supposed to close. Unfortunately, during the coronavirus pandemic, that’s what happened to Last Hope Animal Rescue, located at 3300 Beltagh Ave. in Wantagh.

The small organization’s staff worked tirelessly to send their cats and dogs to foster care for the time being. Volunteers were heading over to the Wantagh location twice a day during the height of the pandemic to make sure the animals that remained at the shelter were in good hands, receiving the special care they needed … The stay-at-home orders created plenty of challenges for this shelter, as well as others throughout New York. But there are also plenty of positive moments that have come out of this difficult time.

Another July 2020 news report out of WLOX in Mississippi explained contributing factors which the spate of May 2021 pandemic pet return claims neglected to consider:

With unemployment rates skyrocketing, the cost of taking care of a pet is becoming too much for some owners, and with the pandemic causing some shelters to close its doors to visitors, animal control workers are finding themselves even busier.

“They were not allowing the public to come into the shelters or anything,” said City of Wiggins Animal Control Melanie Roe. “They had them closed down for quite a while and only animal control was bringing the animals in.”

Since some people cannot drop off unwanted pets to shelters, the Wiggins Police Department is reminding residents to give them a call.

“If somebody has a dog or an animal that they do not want, don’t just cut it loose,” said City of Wiggins Police Chief Matt Barnett. “Call the local SPCA if you’re in Stone County. If it’s in the city, call us. We’ll try to work with you to get that animal in a good safe environment.”

May 2021 reports described a depressing prospect of pets being abandoned as the world resumed reopening — but that excerpt described a genuine issue. As more Americans slipped into financial trouble, they were forced to surrender pets — and with shelters closed for months at that point, they were unable to do so.

One police chief implored the public not to abandon pets outdoors, and said the department endeavored to help. But in all the discussion of “the worst people” abandoning pets, closures and a backlog of pet surrenders were never mentioned — much less the effects of “orphaned” pets or pets of people in long-term care in 2020 (and many also failed to consider Americans’ lack of public trust in law enforcement agencies as another factor.)

In short, even if pet returns spiked in 2021, that could reasonably be expected for a number of reasons. Shelters were closed for months, Americans became poorer and sicker, some died, and pet owners couldn’t even spay or neuter pets — delays that affected populations of puppies and kittens in particular.

On May 18 2021, Animal Care Centers of New York City (@NYCACC) responded to a tweet about the persistent pet return stories, with information that apparently didn’t fit the desired narrative:

YES! We gave data to media outlets showing that return rates are way down (NYC down to 5% from high of 11% per-covid). Most shelters have long-standing surrender prevention programs thanks to @ASPCA funding and are able to work with clients in ways never imagined before!

It’s not clear to whom the shelter provided their data, but it certainly didn’t appear alongside “I think” and “I suspect” commentary from shelters or shelter workers. On May 17 2021, S.E. Smith wrote anopinion piece for the Washington Post about the rumor and why it was so pervasive (“No, people aren’t giving up pandemic pets because they’re bored”):

The pandemic puppy was one of the biggest trend stories of 2020, along with meditations on sourdough starters and Zoom-wear. But now a handful of dubiously sourced reports claim white-collar guardians have gotten bored with their new pets or don’t know what to do with them as they go back to the office, and are choosing to dump their no-longer-comforting canine companions at shelters.

This supposed development has given a lot of people on social media an excuse to do what they love most: act morally superior. It’s all too easy to insist that you would never do such a thing or to demonize people who surrender animals to the shelter under any circumstances … According to an analysis of 1.1 million cases in which owners surrendered cats and dogs commissioned by the Best Friends Animal Society, evictions and other housing issues were cited as driving causes in 13.7 percent of cases. Other research has identified inability to afford care (5 percent), along with “personal problems” (4 percent) such as domestic violence and relocation to nursing homes. A landmark study from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 2015 found nearly half of surrenders involved family or housing problems. Best Friends also found an increase in surrenders when animals are acquired in situations that don’t provide new owners with supports and connections to resources that will help them become responsible guardians.

Bringing up these issues often elicits a “well I didn’t mean those people.” But when the messaging those people receive about animal surrender is that it is grossly cruel abandonment and something only a heartless person who doesn’t care about animals would do, the conclusion is clear: Surrendering a pet is always wrong. This is untrue, and it obscures cases when surrendering a pet may in fact be the best choice for the animal. That includes cases where, for example, someone who can’t be at home all day with an energetic dog thinks it should live with someone who can be.

Smith noted the emphasis of the “dubiously sourced reports” of pandemic pet surrender and how they confer permission  to act “morally superior” (as seen in tweets we embedded). Smith (unlike authors of the “shaming” articles) provided actual figures about animal surrender and its causes — loss of income, loss of housing, and transition to long-term care among them.

Chances are you spotted a heartrending article about careless people returning pandemic pets so they could return to their previous carefree life, and those articles were heavy on guilt and light on figures; a “large number” was almost never provided, and at least one of the articles noted that 2021 surrender rates, while higher than 2020’s, were lower than 2019 rates. Shelter closures, cessation of spay and neuter programs, and other factors also affected the numbers. Overall, it was impossible to determine whether pandemic pets were being “returned” in large numbers, but it was also misleading not to consider factors like eviction, job loss, and lack of access to shelters and veterinary care as contributing factors, too.