A woman cuddles a dog who is up for adoption
Pam Wiese of Omaha cuddles a dog up for adoption, a perk of working for the Nebraska Humane Society in Omaha. Photo courtesy of Pam Wiese

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, loneliness was abundant as people were forced to stay inside and away from each other to avoid spreading the virus. In search of companionship, many turned to adopting a four-legged (or more) friend, ranging from furry to slimy to scaly. 

But recently, some of these owners may be having second thoughts about their newfound companions.

Susan Rodabaugh, the shelter manager for York Adopt-A-Pet, was hired right after the start of the pandemic. She arrived at a shelter that barely had any cats and dogs left after the pandemic-fueled adoption frenzy. 

“When the pandemic started, adoptions went crazy,” Rodabaugh said. “People went nuts and started adopting animals, and it stayed that way until around August [2020].”

Another shelter, the Panhandle Humane Society in Scottsbluff, was full with dogs at the start of the pandemic. 

“Within a month, we were completely cleaned out of dogs,” said Amy Bartholomew, executive director. 

In pre-pandemic times, the Nebraska Humane Society in Omaha facilitated around 10,000 adoptions per year; that number decreased to 7,200 last year, according to Pam Wiese, vice president of public relations and marketing. This year-to-year drop occurred nationally as well, with pet adoptions decreasing almost 20% from 2019 to 2020, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. But despite an overall decrease in adoptions, the adoption frenzy at the start of the pandemic may now be impacting animals and shelters around the state due to increased returns and strays.

In 2019, the Nebraska Humane Society received almost 5,700 pets that were surrendered by owners, according to Wiese. That number significantly dropped to around 4,000 in 2020. But in 2021, and especially in recent months, the Nebraska Humane Society and other shelters have seen an increase in pet surrenders and stray animals. Owner surrenders have increased for the Humane Society in recent weeks, Wiese said, as people become more active compared to their early-pandemic isolation.

“I think that during the pandemic, everyone was home able to take care of everybody,” she said. “Now that people are getting out and about again, sometimes especially our kids don’t want to mess with them as much, they want to be out and about.”

Rodabaugh described a “crazy influx” of stray, unclaimed animals this summer. In one case, an owner turned loose at least six terrier puppies that York Adopt-A-Pet had to capture. While unsure of the exact source, she said this summer’s surge of strays could stem from early pandemic adoptions that may have been premature. Now, York Adopt-A-Pet is often unable to take surrendered pets because they’ve reached full capacity. 

Wiese said the Nebraska Humane Society looks closely at return rates to determine whether its adoption efforts are working effectively. The organization strives to create as perfect a match as possible between animals and humans to reduce the amount of returns it gets, Wiese said. Wiese said the return rate stayed fairly steady at around 4% throughout the pandemic, with a few ebbs and flows.

PetStory2 300x225 - After adoption frenzy, pet shelters seek to educate pet owners, reduce pet returns
The influx of stray and surrendered animals has created more work for attendants like Lauren West, seen clipping a dog’s nails at the Nebraska Humane Society. Photo courtesy of Pam Wiese

Pet shelters used different strategies during the pandemic for pet surrenders and returns. The Nebraska Humane Society, for example, implemented appointments for surrenders to manage intake and make sure the owner is sure they want to surrender the animal before doing so.

“We’re trying to keep pets in homes if we can,” Wiese said. ‘And if we can’t, then we want to be able to manage it from our end … so we don’t get into a position where we’re super overpopulated. It was a great time to implement that [appointment] procedure during the pandemic because we did have fewer surrenders.”

This is part of a larger effort by the Humane Society to decrease intake, for multiple reasons: keeping pets in homes, managing internal animal inventory and being able to work more with individual animals and families to ensure proper care.

“Then [the animal] doesn’t have to come in and we don’t have to have this huge process of these animals being in kind of a facility where they’re uncomfortable at best and really terrified at worst,” Wiese said.

Pet shelter representatives were optimistic that the post-pandemic world may be more conducive to more people owning pets as working from home remains a common practice. But most importantly, they want to see more people showing empathy to animals and only choosing to adopt one when they can truly handle it instead of making a spontaneous decision.

“I would say that unless you are completely serious about adopting an animal, please don’t,” Rodabaugh said. “It’s so tough for them when they are adopted and then are returned or turned loose. Obviously there are reasons that happens, but it should be a lifetime commitment. Don’t do it off a whim.”

David is a senior journalism, marketing and advertising/public relations major from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He enjoys covering arts/entertainment and human interest stories.