Pets adopted during the pandemic find forever homes - even as restrictions lift

Early worries that newly-adopted pets might be returned haven’t materialized, according to national and local shelter data

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While many people were home alone in 2020, Taylorsville resident Mike Packham found a four-legged companion to keep up his social personality while COVID restrictions tightened in his senior living community.

Packham adopted Sam, who was believed to be a 1-year-old husky and border collie mix, in April 2020 — one of a reported 11.38 million households across the nation that adopted new pets during the pandemic.

“In the morning, she’ll hop up on the bed and wake me up with a lick on the face,” Packham said. “It’s just fun to see her enjoy just the exuberance of life. That’s kind of been inspirational, that she’s just full of excitement over simple things.”

Now, while people return back to work as vaccinations become more readily available, animal rescue industry workers are breathing easier: national and local shelter data doesn’t show a large number of pets are being surrendered. Instead, people are as in love with their newly-adopted pets as ever.

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sam, a Husky-Border Collie mix adopted from Best Friends Animal Society, looks up as her owner speaks to a reporter in Taylorsville on Tuesday, June 15, 2021.

Families fostering pets hits an all-time high

Actually, it was a record-breaking year for Best Friends of Utah, with more than 3,000 pets adopted, and returns are down compared to 2020′s statistics. The Utah Humane Society also saw 5,341 pets adopted, with return rates nearly the same as those in 2019 — at 10.6 percent this year so far versus 10.1 percent in 2019.

According to 24PetWatch, which provides pet insurance programs and reports data from over 1,000 shelters and rescues, the numbers of pets being surrendered or returned after being adopted are down at the shelters and rescues that reported data. Numbers are up from 2020, but “many across the country were shut down completely or forced to change their operations early in the pandemic,” so 2020 numbers are not an accurate comparison.

One of the biggest silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic for Best Friends Animal Society is with fostering, said Temma Martin, public relations manager at Best Friends Animal Society. The group is now putting a record number of animals in foster homes, where adoptable pets can await new owners in order to make room in shelters.

“The foster parents know so much more about these pets than we ever did when they were in more of a shelter or an adoption center setting, because they’re living in a home,” Martin said. “The fosters know how they do on walks, and how they do with other animals, and often how they do with kids. It’s just, we have so much more information and better information, and the pets show better.”

Getting back to normal — and to the vet

As individuals start returning to habits that take them away from home more often, Martin recommends for new owners to be on alert for separation anxiety in their pets — especially when they were brought home as young puppies or kittens.

“If you’ve got a cat over the last year, they’ll probably be fine when you go back to work,” Martin said. “For dogs, though, there are a few things that are really important, and one is just preparing them for the change... [Start] by doing short trips, and as you leave don’t make a big deal out of it... [You can’t] just suddenly go back to work one Monday morning after a year of being home and expect that they won’t react.”

The increase in adoptions and time spent at home with pets has brought an increase in vet activity as well. Utah Humane Society associate director of marketing and communications Guinnevere Shuster said they have seen an increase in services in their spay, neuter and vaccine clinic.

According to a study by GeniusVets, an organization that helps pet owners connect with local practitioners, call volumes at veterinary practices across the country have increased by 104 percent. The increase stems from more new pets that need exams and routine preventative care, owners working from home who are interacting with their pet more frequently and notice problems and owners transitioning back to work outside the home, according to the American Animal Health Association.

“There was a period of time probably last summer about this time where our day was completely full, with people having new puppies, just one after the other,” said Jennifer Holmberg, hospital manager at University Veterinary Hospital and Diagnostic Center. “We’re still very, very busy. There are not enough veterinarians to meet the demand of veterinary care, generally speaking, overall in the country.”

University Veterinary Hospital is currently booked out about three weeks for wellness appointments, Holmberg said, but they have implemented a “prompt-care” system with a vet available for pets who need immediate assistance.

“We saw a lot more orthopedics,” Holmberg said. “We kind of figured out there were two things going on: One, people were sitting around staring at their dogs or like with their dogs all the time… or all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Yeah, we used to only [walk] a mile, now we’re going six or seven miles because we’ve had nothing else to do.’”

Some hospitals in the area, like one Packham attempted to visit but was booked out for six weeks, saw even longer wait times. Luckily, he was able to get Sam her rabies booster shot from the Utah Humane Society instead of waiting on the vet.

As restrictions lift, a pandemic pet adapts

Robert Roberts, Packham’s boyfriend, couldn’t visit the residence for about nine months, with guests not permitted at the community for nearly a year, Packham said. It was a tough time to be isolated.

“I’m a pretty social person,” Packham said.

His adopted dog Sam filled a critical role.

“[The dog] actually gave him a good reason to go out and actually do the walks and everything,” Roberts said. “So, it kind of opened it up from where he was sitting in the apartment the entire day Netflixing, to [where] he would go out, he did exercise, a lot healthier for him.”

A little over a year after bringing her home, Packham said he has loved the experience of adopting Sam, through all the challenges 2020 had to offer. He decided that her adoption day in April would be her birthday and painted a portrait of her to commemorate her adoption.

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Packham holds up a portrait he painted of his adopted dog, Sam, at his home in Taylorsville on Tuesday, June 15, 2021.

“She thinks the whole world is there to pet her,” Packham said. “We don’t know how we lucked out to have such a pleasant disposition. She doesn’t bark, she doesn’t disturb; it’s been ideal.”

“We’ve bonded enough now that I wouldn’t consider taking her back. In fact, all my friends say ‘Look, if you ever get tired of her, I’d be glad to adopt her.’”

As the data shows for so many newly adopted pets across the country, Sam has nothing to worry about.