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Animal shelters are overwhelmed by abandoned dogs. Here's why.

Pet Parade: MSPCA-Angell
Pet Parade: MSPCA-Angell 04:35

Man's best friend is increasingly being abandoned on the street, often by people facing financial hardships who can no longer afford to feed or house them.

"Animal shelters generally reflect what is happening to people in a community and where there is food insecurity," Stephanie Filer, executive director of Shelter Animals Count, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

As 2023 came to close, there were 250,000 more animals in the shelter system than the year before, said Filer, whose group compiles data from nearly 7,000 shelters nationwide. 

"Through November, our numbers are showing a continued and persistent gap in the numbers entering our shelters and leaving," said Filer, who also noted an increase in puppies and purebred dogs being brought to shelters.

"In the past year, San Diego Humane Society, which takes in over 30,000 companion animals each year, observed a 20% increase in lost pets not retrieved by their owners," Dr. Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of San Diego Humane Society, said in an emailed statement. "Families relinquish their pets for various, often heartbreaking reasons, including escalating costs of care, insufficient housing options for pet owners and limited access to veterinary care. We also believe a pause in spay/neuter surgery accessibility during the pandemic has also increased the number of animals in our shelters."

Many people have pulled back on adopting dogs for the same reason they are relinquishing their pets: They are worried about their financial situation, according to Katy Hansen, director of communications for Animal Care Centers of NYC, New York City's largest animal shelter. The organization last year contended with 3,200 abandoned dogs, up 41% from 2022.

"Right now dogs are the bigger issue because we don't have room anymore. We do interviews in offices that also have crates in them and we have dogs in the hallways," Hansen said. "We prevented almost 3,000 surrenders last year just by offering free food, temporary boarding, or some people just need help with training." 

Still, there are situations the shelter can't redress, such as helping find rental properties that take big dogs. "Landlords in New York City pretty much have the upper hand," Hansen said. "We're getting pets that have been in the family for years and years." 

Dogs housed in every nook and cranny at Animal Care Centers of NYC, New York City's largest animal shelter. Animal Care Centers of NYC

Difficulty covering the rent comes along with paying more for pretty much everything. Dog owners fork over hundreds of dollars a year for veterinary visits, and in 2022 paid an average of $354 for food and $315 for boarding, according to the American Pet Products Association. 

"The economy and inflation especially are bringing up the cost of everything, from dog food to medical care," Mike Keiley, vice president of the animal protection division at MSPCA-Angell, a nonprofit that runs four shelters across Massachusetts that have been running at capacity since spring of last year.

In times of economic hardship, dogs and horses are the species that get impacted the most, as larger animals are costlier to take care of, said Keiley, who noted that his organization saw a 40% increase in local dog owners surrendering their pets last year. 

"During the 2008-09 housing crisis in Massachusetts, we saw horses impacted first, as they are the most expensive animals to own, and dogs secondarily. Cats always trail behind on economic issues, and you don't see the same restrictions on housing with cats," he offered. 

More dogs put to death

People are making desperate choices in part because of the challenge of finding affordable housing, a situation heightened with the lifting of a federal moratorium on evictions in August of 2022. Especially in competitive housing markets, many landlords have imposed stricter rules limiting or banning pets, particularly certain breeds and larger dogs. 

"It's harder to find affordable housing that allows pets," said Keiley.

Dog surrendered in Staten Island, New York. Animal Care Centers of NYC

"We need to increase adoptions — saying 'my dog's a rescue,' now we see that is not as big of a motivator. We've lost that understanding that shelters have a ton of amazing animals that are at risk of not having live outcomes right now." 

Animal Care Centers of NYC euthanized 2% more dogs in 2023 than in 2022, in large part due to overpopulation.

At the Kansas City-Missouri animal shelter, KC Pet Project, "we're giving away dogs like crazy for free, as soon as a dog hits the 30-day mark," said Tori Fugate, its chief communications officer. "This last year was the absolute hardest we've experienced in our 12-year history," added Fugate, who noted that the shelter's took population increased to 8,420 dogs last year, up from 7,500 in 2022.

"We are having to euthanize more animals; 93% are leaving through positive outcomes," said Fugate, who added the shelter has two full-time employees devoted to reuniting lost pets with their owners. 

In addition to encouraging adoption, animal shelters are trying to help people with financial challenges not have to choose between feeding themselves or their pet. MSPCA-Angell previously had programs in place where people could pick up pet food at its shelters, but is now working with human food pantries to stock pet food so that those living in poverty don't have to travel to two places. 

"One stop and everyone is fed — that's the way animal welfare has to evolve right now. It's a battle for every available home that has a pet to keep their pet," Keiley said.

Beyond adoption, those looking to help can provide temporary foster care for animals, volunteer their time at their local shelter or donate pet food, supplies or money. 

As Keiley put it: "There's a way for everyone who cares about animals to help." 

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