GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — More than two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, life is essentially back to “normal.” Unfortunately, lots of pets have been caught in the middle of that “return to normal.”

With more people returning to the office, going on vacations or just getting out of the house, animal shelters across the country are reporting more pet surrenders and a notable drop in adoptions, pushing them to capacity.

A stray dog is held in a kennel at Kent County Animal Shelter on Friday, July 8, 2022. (Matt Jaworowski/WOODTV8)

“It’s a national trend right now that a lot of animal shelters are really feeling the crunch of animal intake. There are a lot of different factors that really play into that,” Angela Hollinshead, the director of the Kent County Animal Shelter, told News 8. “We’re not seeing the numbers (we saw) pre-pandemic, but we are seeing some of the highest numbers that we’ve seen post-pandemic.”

Pet adoptions skyrocketed at the start of the pandemic, one of COVID-19’s few silver linings.

“Everybody decided they had the time, they had the ability, and there was also that level of companionship,” Hollinshead said. “If you were a single person who lived at home in mid-2020, you (couldn’t) go anywhere. You need companionship. It’s a basic human need and pets can really fulfill that for us. So there was a lot of people that said, ‘Now is the time for me to adopt a pet.’”

Now, those numbers are tipping the other way.

“KITTEN SEASON”

The Kent County Animal Shelter can hold somewhere between 100 to 120 animals, not including approximately 30 animals that are being housed by foster families. As of July 8, the shelter was caring for 108 animals.

The summers are always the busiest season and 2022 is shaping up to be particularly busy.

“We generally see most of our intake increase from June, July, August. September and October are actually some of our busiest months,” Hollinshead said. “In June, we took in 320 (animals), which is a lot compared to what we did in January, which was 208.”

The shelter relies on adoptions so it can continue to bring in animals that need help.

Two cats explore the “cattery” inside the Kent County Animal Shelter on Friday, July 8, 2022. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

“People are not adopting as frequently right now because it’s summertime, people are traveling,” Hollinshead said. “There are a lot of busy things going on that really don’t put people in a good position to want to adopt a pet. I think that was more of an impact because we spent the last two years in isolation because of the pandemic. People are really excited to get out.”

Shelters are also busier in the summer because of the quick influx of kittens — also known as “kitten season.”

“Cats breed during the warmer months. So in the Midwest and Michigan, that’s anywhere from April essentially to October,” Brianna Shahly of the Humane Society of West Michigan told News 8. “(Cats) breed very quickly, gestation periods are pretty short, and you can have a litter of anywhere from two to 12 kittens.”

The Humane Society of West Michigan works with shelters across the region to make sure they have the materials they need and help where they can. Shahly estimates they have roughly 500 animals currently in their care, including 300 kittens, 100 adult cats and 100 dogs.

“The only reason we are able to care for that many pets is because of our really robust foster system that we were able to put into place because of the pandemic,” Shahly said. “We have amazing foster families that take on all of these kittens. Some of the kittens have mothers that are able to care for them, which is awesome, but some of the kittens come in as orphans and they need around-the-clock bottled baby care. So they essentially need to be fed every couple of hours.”

Shahly says foster families are just as important as adoptions because they allow shelters to keep kennels open for new animals. She estimates of the 500 animals, at least 200 are being cared for by fosters.

“The more room we have outside of the shelter, the more animals we can take,” Shahly said.

Foster families are also used to care for animals that might need a little extra attention.

“We have a lot of willing foster families, especially those that can take harder cases: animals that need to be the only pet, senior animals or animals with medical needs,” Shahly said.

Steven Guinn, of Rockford, walks out of the Kent County Animal Shelter on Friday, July 8, 2022, after adopting Petey. (Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

OTHER OPTIONS

Aside from taking in strays and animals that need a home, animal shelters also provide resources and help to people so they can keep their pets.

“We are the municipal animal shelter who works with the animal control department. We don’t have the option of just saying, ‘No, we’re full. We can’t take any more animals,’” Hollinshead said. “When it comes to the stray populations, we have that obligation to provide care. So, at that point, we really look at our owner-released animals and go, OK, if this person needs to release their pet, how can we help them without just bringing it into our care?”

Hollinshead said many surrenders can be avoided with food or medical help or even some simple advice.

“We will see people complain that they can’t get their pet house-trained. They keep going to the bathroom,” Hollinshead told News 8. “Have they been fixed? Because they could be territorial marking. We can refer them to facilities like C-SNIP to try and help fix the problem without surrendering the animal.”

She continued: “Education, food, spay, neuter, vaccines: How can we refer them to another partner group to do everything we can to keep that pet in their home so they don’t have to release it to us.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP

To help shelters across the country, the Bissell Pet Foundation is holding its longest-ever “Empty the Shelters” adoption event, running from July 11 to July 31. Participating shelters charge no more than $50 for an adopted pet, including spay or neutering, vaccinations and microchipping. All the other costs are covered by the foundation.

More than 260 shelters across 42 states are participating in this month’s Empty the Shelters event, including 11 in West Michigan. You are recommended to check with your local shelter on pricing and how long they are participating in the event.

While more adoptions would be ideal, the financial reimbursement from the Bissell Pet Foundation doesn’t come automatically, and not all shelters can afford to cover those extra costs for a long period of time.

According to Brittany Schlacter with the Bissell Pet Foundation, Empty the Shelters has helped more than 96,000 animals get adopted since it launched in 2016. And the impact goes even further.

“We also track impact numbers. Those are the pets that get adopted before and after the official Empty the Shelters event and the pets that get transported out during these events, too. Because after we ‘empty the shelters,’ space opens up through those adoptions, so they’re able to take in (animals) from other shelters. So we’ve helped more than 115,000 pets since 2016 through the Empty the Shelters program,” Schlacter told News 8.

The Bissell Pet Foundation also accepts donations, which can be marked to go directly to the Empty the Shelters program. Schlacter said the foundation has no administrative fees, meaning 100% of each donation goes directly to caring for animals.

If adoptions or donations aren’t an option for you, consider volunteering. There are several links below to direct you to local organizations: