U.S. animal shelters will start 2024 in the most overcrowded condition they have been in years, according to a broad survey of animal rescue facilities, a symptom of persistent economic concern as the country’s pandemic pet-adoption boom finally cools.
There are roughly a quarter-million more pets in animal shelters this holiday season than there were in the same period in 2022, according to Shelter Animals Count, a not-for-profit that tracks unhoused pet populations.
That figure would be higher, said Stephanie Filer, the group’s executive director, if shelters were not already overcrowded and had more space to keep animals.
Pet adoptions skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly 1 in 5 households adopted a pet during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Even President Biden adopted a dog, Commander, and a cat, Willow.
At the pandemic’s height, 70 percent of U.S. households owned pets, according to the American Pet Products Association trade group, or APPA, and 54 percent of all households owned dogs.
But as the economy turned sour and inflation rose to historic heights, consumers’ buying power dwindled and the pace of adoptions slowed. That, in turn, put a strain on rescue facilities, which have limited space to house unwanted cats and dogs, Filer said. Now about two-thirds of households own a pet, according to APPA, and half own dogs.
Pet populations, though, have continued to grow; owners skipped nearly 3 million spay or neuter surgeries in 2020 and 2021, according to research conducted by the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Shelters experienced a dramatic influx of puppies, including sought-after breeds, such as French bulldogs, or purposeful breed crosses, like labradoodles.
The pandemic, and the thousands of dollars in stimulus funding that individuals and households received, made pet ownership affordable for scores of families. The end of the pandemic, and the federal government’s fiscal tightening, threatened for a time to make pet ownership a stark economic divider between the middle and working classes.
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in a largely successful attempt to cool inflation. But that caused the cost of animal care to increase dramatically, according to Brandy Keck, head of veterinary and pet-care facility lending for Live Oak Bank. Vets and pet-care businesses raised prices to cope both with higher demand and business costs, including borrowing, payroll and materials. The cost of veterinary services jumped 9 percent from November 2022 to November 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pet food costs rose 5.6 percent in the same period.
All that added up to one result: Owning a pet got more expensive. And a lot more pets are stuck in shelters because of it.
“How we got to this point is truly a three-year snowballing trend,” Filer told The Washington Post. “It’s a perfect storm of the shelter system taking on all of the crises at once.”
Those crises could be starting to ease, though. Prospective pet owners generally decide whether to adopt an animal based on their economic outlook, experts say, and financial forecasts are brightening.
Consumer sentiment surged 14 percent in December, an indicator that ordinary Americans are significantly more optimistic about the economy than the month prior. Inflation also fell much faster in 2023 than most economists forecast. The Fed signaled it may even cut interest rates in 2024, loosening borrowing costs for the first time since March 2022.
That could be a boon especially to the pet industry, which relies on cheap money to finance expensive equipment—such as X-ray machines in medical offices—and expand to serve growing demand.
In the first half of 2023, Keck said, veterinary and pet-care facility businesses pumped the brakes on new projects fearing an economy headed toward a recession.
By June, she sad, “It was like the floodgates opened again.” Pet industry businesses, seeing positive signs for adoption rates and consumer spending, started borrowing more, expanding services and increasing competition that could bring down consumer costs in the long-term.
But in this holiday season, animals in overcrowded shelters still need help. Households can volunteer to foster animals, Filer said, which dramatically increases dogs’ likelihood of adoption. Taking dogs on temporary outings or fostering them for a night or two can increase their odds of adoption by up to 1,400 percent, according to a 2023 study conducted by researchers at Arizona State University and Virginia Tech, and published in the journal Animals.
Pet owners who are struggling to provide for their animals should contact shelters or rescue organizations as soon as possible for help, Filer said. The organizations are often able to provide financial or material assistance so households don’t have to surrender their pets.
“Don’t reach out when you have no other option,” Filer said. “Reach out as soon as possible to see what your options are.”