By Gregory DL Morris
CHAPEL HILL — Adopting a pet should be a careful commitment to care for an animal for its entire life. While some people spend thousands of dollars for purebreds, shelters and rescue services are again filling with animals in need of caring homes.
An important part of that care, especially for dogs and cats, is to have the animal spayed or neutered. While most animals are instinctive parents, “there is a misconception that dogs and cats want to experience parenthood,” said Sandra Strong, director of Orange County Animal Services.
Strong is concerned there has been a recent increase in the number of puppies coming into her shelter. “Puppies are usually easy to place, but the number we are getting indicates that we are at some saturation point. I wonder if our community is spaying and neutering as they should.”
Dogs and cats do have emotions, but “they live in the moment,” Strong said. “They don’t long for babies. We know that male dogs are less likely to escape and roam if they are neutered, and there is new science that shows female cats are at higher risk for several medical complications after just a few heat cycles.”
Pets can important in the lives of older people for whom their companion animals are their only family. Some shelters have visitation programs for seniors who cannot keep a pet full-time. There is also an increasing trend of animal shelters collaborating with domestic-violence services.
“There is a well-researched link between abuse of animals and abuse of people,” Strong said. “And pets are often used as leverage by abusers to keep victims from getting help.”
Strong took the helm at OCAS in June 2021 after serving as a shelter veterinarian in Wake County. She said the organization saw a rise in adoptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was also an effort to limit intake because staff was limited. In 2023, cats are getting adopted faster than ever, but dogs — particularly large and active breeds — are staying in shelters longer.
“People get puppies because they are darn cute, andmay not train them or socialize them well, or may not have the time or resources for them to grow into big, active animals,” Strong said.
As a result, shelters get a lot of teenage dogs.
“Be mindful where donations are going,” said Strong. “Volunteer at, or at least visit, your local shelter. You don’t have to adopt. The animals benefit from day-cations, so come and walk a dog or play with the kittens.”
Orange and Durham counties have good shelter programs, said Marian Fragola, who leads the dog program at Independent Animal Rescue, an active foster program in the area.
“We get animals that do not do well on the foster floor,” said Fragola. “They may have behavioral or health issues. We put them into a calm foster home. We let them settle. We learn the animals and try to place them with compatible families.”
IAR has a thorough placement program through which the pet selects the adoption family as much as the family selects the pet. IAR foster families visit the adoption family at home with the animals and then return a week or two later to see how the humans and the animals are getting along.
Mary Dow, head of the cat program at IAR, said their adoptions are going “fairly well.”
An important part of the program is care for feral animals, especially the trap-neuter-vaccinate-release operation.
“We also give guidance and support to people who care for feral colonies,” Dow said. “The colonies in and around Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, and Durham are fairly stable.”
IAR has a core group of more than 40 foster families but needs a dozen more. There is also an urgent need for ‘respite’ fosters: families who are able to take one or two animals on a short-term basis if a regular foster family can not.
“Nationally, shelter intake is down 16% as compared to before the pandemic,” said Lindsay Hamrick, National Director of Shelter Outreach and Engagement for the Humane Society of the United States. “At the same time, there has also been a steady decline in animals leaving the shelter system.”
Fewer are coming in, but fewer are going out, and they are staying longer. A considerable segment of shelter intake is lost pets.
“Most animals are lost within the neighborhood,” Hamrick said. “If you can, keep the animal for a day or two while you spread the word around the area. Taking the pet to the shelter is taking it out of the neighborhood. Definitely call the shelter, to which owners will have reported the lost animal.”
Hamrick noted many pets have microchip identification, which shelters can scan. The chips are one of the best ways to reunite pets with families.
Another technological advance is facial recognition software. It was developed by biologists for tracking wildlife and is now being used for reuniting lost pets. Petco, the national retail chain, offers the service free on its Love Lost system, in partnership with other retailers and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“I’ve been in animal welfare for more than 20 years,” said Hamrick, “and organizations are collaborating better than ever. Typically the private [non-profit] groups support their local shelter. The national organizations are more focused on policy. They take on issues that the local groups and shelters can’t handle.”
As an example of the cascading collaboration, HSUS recently completed a mentorship program with the city shelter in Charlotte. That facility, in turn, has a mentor program with shelters in rural parts of the state.
“We work with the ASPCA in several ways,” said Hamrick. “They have a strong shelter-medicine program. We have state directors that coordinate activities and lobbying in each state and tend to focus more on policy.” There are naturally some similarities, but mostly the two national organizations complement each other, she explained.
On the policy front, Hamrick said that there has been a surge in pet welfare regulation and legislation in the wake of the notorious Envirgo case where 4,000 beagles were rescued in Virginia last year.
The increase in shelter occupancy is not being driven by relinquishments by families who adopted during the pandemic, explained Christa Chadwick, vice president of shelter services for the ASPCA. “Research shows that among the pets recently given up, the majority of dogs and cats went to friends, family, and neighbors, not to shelters. There are multiple factors that are converging simultaneously to impact many shelters’ capacity for care including staffing and veterinarian shortages and an increasing proportion of animals with greater medical and behavior needs.”
Gregory DL Morris is an independent journalist based in Chapel Hill with more than 30 years’ experience covering business, environment, energy and infrastructure. He has reported from all 50 states, eight Canadian provinces, and 17 countries on five continents.