How pet adoptions cope with COVID-19

Photo by Cassie Dickman

Antioch Animal Services Manager George Harding feeds treats to dogs in quarantine at the city’s shelter.

George Harding noted the silence in the background during a recent phone interview from the Antioch Animal Services shelter.

“If you can hear, it’s, like, perfectly quiet right now,” he said.

Harding, who manages the shelter, credits the calm to Animal Services implementing an exclusive appointment-only adoption system.

For much of the COVID-19 pandemic, Harding says the shelter was largely off limits to the drop-in style lookie-looing that most people had become accustomed to at animal shelters before COVID-19.

Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted a statewide stay-at-home order in March 2020 to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, shutting down nearly all nonessential face-to-face contact and services for businesses, residents and state agencies. Shelters and other adoption organizations throughout the state and locally were forced to restructure adoption and other services to mandates that didn’t allow people to view animals in person.

Antioch Animal Services resorted to online showings and pet adoption website listings for those interested in an animal from the city shelter, Harding said. Anyone serious about wanting a specific dog or cat could then make an appointment to come meet their potential future pet in an outside setting.

The shelter eventually moved adoption appointments inside as the pandemic dragged on, following statewide COVID-19 protocols such as requiring face masks, Harding said.

California gradually lifted its stay-at-home order over the last year, largely doing away with many of its remaining COVID-19 restrictions in June. In the beginning of July, Harding said the shelter was once again reopened for drop-in viewing.

But that didn’t last long.

It took less than a week for Animal Services to realize a structured schedule was best for the animals, Harding said.

While the lobby remains open to the public, many of the shelter’s services, such as adoptions and animal licensing, require an appointment, Harding said. It has reduced both wait times for the public and stress on the shelter’s animals.

He said that many shelters have also made the decision to permanently switch to appointment-only adoptions.

“The animals aren’t constantly stirred up with people poking at them and walking through and all that kind of stuff,” Harding said. “It’s made a huge difference.”

The pandemic has also forced other local organizations to change the way pet adoptions are conducted.

Nancy Newlin is the cat manager for Homeless Animals Lifeline Organization (HALO). The East Contra Costa County-based nonprofit was founded in 2001 and relies on a network of animal foster volunteers in Discovery Bay, Antioch and Brentwood to take care of its dogs and cats before they are adopted.

For a time, HALO fosters were forced to get creative during the pandemic in order to show animals to potential adopters, Newlin said, such as inviting people to the front porch or yard of their home or at a park.

“We adopt out of our home all the time. We didn’t used to do that. I mean, we would do that, but not so much,” Newlin said. “But with the pandemic it was like, well, how are we going to get these kittens out?”

The organization has since moved back to showing animals three days a week at Pet Food Express on Lone Tree Way in Antioch, Newlin said. Animals up for adoption can also be viewed online.

Erin Thompson, marketing manager for Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), says the organization was forced to stop drop-in adoptions at its Walnut Creek-based facility. The nonprofit cat and dog rescue has also temporarily done away with adoptions at pet stores and other community events due to COVID-19.

ARF was founded in 1991 by La Russa and his wife to rescue dogs and cats from overcrowded municipal shelters and strengthen the human-animal bond for children, seniors, veterans, and people in need, according to its website. ARF also performs spaying and neutering to combat pet overpopulation and provides community outreach and education.

The organization, which uses its own shelter as well as fosters to care for its animals, conducts the adoption process primarily through its website, where potential adopters can view available animals and fill out applications, Thompson said. In-person appointments to meet an animal are made once the application process is complete.

“Our efforts are focused now on giving our adopters the best possible experience during their appointments,” Thompson said.

Both ARF and HALO say adoption interest and numbers increased during 2020.

HALO saw 330 cats adopted last year, which Newlin said “definitely was up” over recent prior years. The organization, whose cat side is currently more active, didn’t see any significant increases in dog adoptions.

Before the pandemic, ARF typically averaged 100-150 adoption inquiries each week, Thompson said. That number has increased and remained steady at about 200-250 a week since the organization switched to an online adoption process during the pandemic after previously conducting adoptions primarily in person.

“We had a few extraordinary weeks at the height of interest during the pandemic. Once we received 900 adoption inquiries for a litter of eight adorable puppies within just a few days,” Thompson said. But she also added that the overall increase could likely be due to many other factors rather than just the pandemic, such as the online application process being more accessible.

On the other hand, Antioch Animal Services adoptions have remained steady since the pandemic began, Harding said. The shelter also saw a decrease in the number of animals it housed last year, though numbers began going up again this spring.

During the earlier part of the pandemic, shelters weren’t accepting animals due to the statewide shelter-in-place order, Harding said. Shelters were forced to change how they operate, encouraging and helping people to use other tools for things like finding owners of lost pets, such as using social media or putting up fliers in their neighborhood, rather than bringing an animal into the shelter.

But he says that’s changed since people have started physically going back to work.

“They don’t have the extra time and they’re not at home, where they can just watch the animal,” Harding said.

Both Antioch Animal Services and ARF say that they haven’t had an increase in animals being returned or surrendered due to the pandemic as restrictions loosen. Thompson of ARF, said that pets adopted during the pandemic have been less likely to be returned.

“A lot of people have feared that as people return to work, are they going to return the animals they adopted when they were working from home,” Thomspon said. “We’ve not seen that to be the case at all.”

But she added that could change after the state eviction moratorium ends.

“Because if people can’t find housing that will allow them to have their animal, sometimes people are forced to make very difficult choices,” Thompson said.