Canadian animal shelters facing ‘perfect storm’ as more pets are being surrendered

WATCH: Pet surrenders leave Peterborough Humane Society at capacity for several weeks

Since the start of the year, more and more pets have been finding their way into the care of the Regina Humane Society.

During the first six months of 2022, the Saskatchewan organization has seen at least 200 more animals come through its doors when compared to the year before, said Bill Thorn, director of marketing and public relations at the Regina Humane Society. In 2019, they had roughly half as many animals surrendered during the same time period.

It’s a trend being reported at many Canadian animal shelters this year, and it’s one that has a national advocacy group sounding the alarm over growing pressures to the system.

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Many shelters are either close to or are at capacity as inflation puts cost pressures on pet owners, and at the same time are seeing a rise in calls for help and a growing waitlist to bring animals in to them, said Barbara Cartwright, CEO of Humane Canada, which represents Canadian humane societies and SPCAs.

Combined with stretched resources, Canadian animal shelters have been caught in a “perfect storm,” she said.

“It is a real concern,” said Cartwright. “We think it’s going to get much worse in the fall.”

Many Canadian animal shelters have been seeing an increase in pressure on the system lately.

In a July 13 post on its website, the Winnipeg Humane Society said it’s currently operating at 85 per cent capacity. Peaks in intake push the shelter to full capacity, it added. A spokesperson told Global News in an email the Winnipeg Humane Society is working to remediate the issues.

Meanwhile, on July 5, Sue Shearstone, manager for shelter operations at Toronto Animal Services, told Global News there’s been a 60 per cent increase in the number of animals coming to shelters in the past six months compared to the same period in 2021.

That same day, the Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society reported reaching capacity and had to pause intakes to ease the pressure on the system.

“We just reopened our doors two weeks ago and it was just an influx of animals that came in, and once again we’re at the maximum capacity of what we can care for currently,” Executive Director Deanna Thompson told Global News at the time.

The news of a rise in pet surrenders comes after many Canadians rushed to adopt or buy pets when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

According to a June 2021 survey commissioned by Purina, roughly 3.7 million Canadians newly adopted, purchased or fostered a cat or a dog during the pandemic.

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Meanwhile, recent demand for adoption has been “a little sluggish” at the Toronto Humane Society, said Chief Operating Officer Phil Nichols.

“The animals that are coming in are tending to stay with us for a longer period of time, resulting in more animals to care for on a day-to-day basis, which is taxing a lot of the resources that are available,” Nichols told Global News.

It’s no doubt hard for many Canadians to surrender their pets, but there’s numerous issues at play when it comes to the current pressures shelters are experiencing, experts say.

According to Cartwright, one of the reasons why shelters are under pressure is because a lot of them are reporting animals having health and mental problems when they come in.

It could be that during the height of the pandemic, many bought from breeders with poor track records on health care, she said.

“When they come into the shelter, they need more time in the shelter to get ready to be adopted. The shelter has to work on training, has to work on the behavioural issues (and) may have to do medical interventions,” Cartwright said.

“They’re in the shelter longer. That means they’re taking up space, and so that puts a very high burden on the animal shelter.”

In Regina, many owners have cited cost issues when surrendering their pets, Thorn said.

“The single biggest reason that we have is people can’t afford the pet anymore. In the first six months of this year, the instance of that being given as a reason for surrender has doubled over 2021,” he said, adding “change in lifestyle” is another common reason shelter staff are hearing.

“We certainly believe that that is an effect of the pandemic, and just the general economy, too. Things have got very expensive very quickly this year and a lot of changes in living arrangements and employment over the last couple of years, and it’s starting to catch up now.”

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Furthermore, like a lot of other industries in Canada, staffing levels are not what they were prior to the pandemic, said Nichols.

“Staffing is our biggest pressure right now, specifically animal care and medical professional staff and veterinary medical professional staffing are quite sparse. There’s a national shortage of veterinarians and registered veterinary technicians across the country that’s very much present in Toronto,” he said, adding they have positions open but are having trouble filling them.

“It’s putting animal shelters that need to employ those professionals in a really tight spot because there’s very few professionals available to do the work, but it’s likewise hitting any guardian or pet parent that’s out there because it’s that much harder for them to try to find a veterinarian to provide the care that they need.”

Echoing Cartwright’s worries, Nichols said the “fall is causing us to have a fair bit of concern” with COVID-19 lingering over a time of year that generally sees an increase in shelter intakes.

“If we have another hit to our staffing complement, that’s going to be pretty detrimental to our capacity to be able to provide care to all the animals that need it,” he said.

In Regina, demand is at its highest right now, said Thorn. But they will be watching what happens in the fall as well.

“We’re hoping that the fall will not be too bad, but I guess time will tell and we’ll certainly be paying attention to what the trend is.”

Cartwright is calling on Ottawa to introduce a financial support package to help the industry through this time, not only to help with staffing levels but also to help equip shelters with the tools they need to care for their animals, such as vaccines.

With humane societies being charitable organizations, she is also calling on Canadians to not only consider donating to their local group, but to also contribute to Humane Canada’s National Pet Food Bank Program as well.

“We know that there are families out there that are economically challenged that are having to make a terrible decision to surrender their animals,” she said.

“Let’s make sure that that family can get the food, the cat litter, the leashes, whatever it is that they need if they’re facing economic challenges, that they can get it.”

At the end of the day, no owner finds it easy to surrender their pet, especially at a time when the cost of animal care is increasing, said Nichols.

“Resources are strapped and inflation is hitting everybody. The more we can do as a community to help fellow pet owners keep their animals with them will be the best thing that we can possibly do to help animal shelters deal with overburden.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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