AUSTIN (KXAN) – Long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic trickled down into multiple aspects of our lives, and the lives of our pets. Around March 2021, animal shelters in Austin and surrounding areas felt the reality of people going back to work, realizing they had less time to take care of their pets. 

Overcrowding of animal shelters, though, goes deeper than people returning “pandemic pets.” In talking to shelters around the community, many found, for some owners, the financial stress became too much to provide their pet the best care. In other cases, there was a lack of available housing that would accommodate their pet’s breed and weight.

At the core of it, though, shelters in Austin, San Marcos, Williamson County, Bastrop and Houston said they are feeling the effects of overcrowding from a lack of spayed and neutered animals. Second to that are people returning their pets due to finances, housing conflicts or not having enough time to care for them.

Misty Valenta, animal services director for the Williamson County Animal Shelter, said she takes an empowerment-based approach. 

Valenta has been with WCAS since 2012 and stepped into her current role in May 2020. 

“It was really interesting when things were first beginning,” Valenta said. “There was a big demand for fostering and adoption (in 2020). We got so many animals into great homes and into great foster homes, and that was wonderful.”

When businesses started having people come back to work, she saw intake numbers remain consistent, but stays were often longer. Animals weren’t getting adopted at the same rate as before, and the month-to-month carryover was increasing.

WCAS tracks monthly population balance, which measures how many animals are coming in versus going out. One hundred percent means animals are leaving at the same rate they’re coming in. Under 100% means the number of animals in the shelter is increasing, and over 100% means numbers are decreasing. 

In FY 20-21, the population balance for dogs was 98.17% and 96.82% for cats, a decrease for both compared to FY 19-20. By FY 21-22, the numbers were back up with 103.53% for cats, and 98.26% for dogs. As of March this year, the shelter saw 110% population balance for dogs.

Community engagement

The key to her approach is empowering the community to take an active role in the adoption process from start to finish. For Valenta, it’s all about educating people on the resources available and encouraging them to take an extra step or two to care for an animal they’re bringing in.

When someone brings an animal into the shelter, her staff is trained to go over the options. The first step is to check the microchip, if the animal has one, and ask the person who brought the animal in: are you able to return the animal to its home if one can be located?

The second question staff will ask, if the pet’s home can’t be found, is whether the person is willing to foster the pet temporarily, using the shelter’s available resources and support, such as pet medical care, food, crates and leashes.

If they aren’t available for any of those options, the shelter staff give the person bringing the pet some “found” flyers and ask them to put them up where the animal was found. 

Sandwich board with resources about lost/stray dogs for the public in the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter intake lobby.
Sandwich board with resources about lost/stray dogs for the public in the Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter intake lobby.

“We want to develop that culture of not just doing things because that’s the way they’ve always been done,” Valenta said. “We don’t want to say no to someone just because it doesn’t fit our protocols perfectly. How do we say yes in a way that benefits the person, the animal and the shelter?” 

By taking the time to learn about the situation of every animal that gets brought in and treating each as its own unique story, Valenta is encouraging the community to be active in animal rescue and change the culture around dropping off animals from “I have to go drop this dog I found off at the shelter” to “what are the steps I can take to make sure we can find this dog its home.” 

WCAS has gotten creative with its adoptions, too, and said it saw a decrease in animals being brought back to the shelter after being adopted. Through a program called “Best Match,” Valenta and the shelter staff connect one-on-one with people looking to adopt and learn about what they’re looking for in a pet.

They use that information to match them with animals at the shelter and let them spend time together outside rather than just walking through the pets and picking one out. Shelter staff even use the Best Match program to connect pets with families outside the Williamson County jurisdiction through virtual meetings. 

In her time with WCAS, Valenta said she has seen time and time again that giving people the resources they need to be pet owners — such as reduced cost medical care, behavior training assistance and pet food pantries — significantly decreases animal returns.

In October 2020, for example, WCAS partnered with Emancipet, a low cost vet clinic, and brought the mobile clinic to the shelter for a day. They advertised it to the community and even offered to pay for the first 33 spay and neuters. Valenta said turnout was higher than the shelter ever imagined, and the line of people with their pets wrapped around the building. 

“It’s not that people don’t want to, it’s that people don’t have the resources and an easy outlet to get it done. [The mobile clinic event] changed the way I thought about things. To me, now, it’s about trying to find more ways to find more resources in Williamson County, because if you bring the resources, the community will show up,” Valenta said. 

Something else the shelter started doing is temporary fostering, where people can foster dogs for a day or a weekend and get them out of the shelter for a bit. Valenta said even just being taken on extra walks by volunteers helps the dogs’ mental state and they become “completely different dogs.”

"Best Match" posters hanging outside the dog kennel space at Williamson Country Regional Animal Shelter. (KXAN Photo/Ivy Fowler)
“Best Match” posters hanging outside the dog kennel space at Williamson Country Regional Animal Shelter. (KXAN Photo/Ivy Fowler)

Other solutions to a widespread issue

It isn’t just WCAS that’s recognizing overcrowding being linked to a resource issue. Bastrop County Animal Shelter has partnered with the non-profit group Save An Angel to provide low-cost medical care to community members coming to its shelter for help, specifically spay and neutering. 

“The single most important thing that anyone can do to prevent pet overpopulation is to spay and neuter them. Spay and neutering is the solution to the crisis that we face at the end of the day,” said Jeremy Parks, executive director of Save an Angel. “There’s only so many spaces and spots [at the shelter] to keep and properly care for these animals, and they’re doing everything they can to keep up with that.” 

Austin Animal Center, Bastrop County Animal Shelter, San Marcos Regional Animal Shelter, and Houston Humane all identified a lack of spayed and neutered animals contributing heavily to their overcrowding. 

Austin Animal Shelter relies heavily on its volunteer program to keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly and helping people who want to adopt find an animal that’s right for them. 

“Our volunteers are here focusing on relationships and providing that enrichment to our animals, and they’re really able to advocate and speak to the personality of our animals,” said Mary Brown, Austin Animal Shelter’s customer service and volunteer program manager. “A lot of people who come on site to the shelter can be overwhelmed with physically handling the animals, so we really try to recruit volunteers to come in and help answer customer questions and promote their favorite shelter animals.” 

For their long-stay animals, particularly dogs, the staff remain active in updating their online profiles with new content and trying to get them involved in off-site or on-site adoption events. 

“We have staff focusing on those long-stay dogs to see what we can do and how we can change up what we’re currently doing to help get them into a home faster,” Brown said. 

Additionally, Austin Animal Shelter waives adoption fees for animals during adoption events and for all animals living in a crate. Its pet resource center also offers crates, food and spay and neuter vouchers to foster families who are willing to take care of animals until their forever home can be found. 

“We used to be able to see a slow period in the year during fall and winter, but for the past three to four years we haven’t had that,” Brown said. “It’s hard to reach the entire community of what the bigger picture is of what the shelter is going through. What we’re trying to tell the community is we’re here as a resource for animals with highest-priority needs, especially those emergency cases of animals hit by a car or that are coming from an unsafe housing situation.” 

In 2022, Austin Animal Center took in 6,425 dogs according to its annual report and 71% of those were adopted out to new families or returned to their owners. Twenty-six percent were transferred to another shelter. Compared to 2021, that number stayed relatively the same, with intake being 6,221 dogs and 72% being adopted or returned to their homes, and 25% transferred to another shelter. The live release rate, the number of animals leaving the shelter by means other than in-shelter death or euthanasia, went up from 96.6% in 2021 to 97.3% in 2022.

“Before you bring a stray here to the shelter, reach out to us about those resources available so we can help you reunite that pet with its owner,” Brown said. “We are always looking for fosters and volunteers, too. We really rely on those two programs to support the shelter and those higher-priority animals that we have in our care.” 

San Marcos Regional Animal Shelter has a dogs day out program as well, where it encourages the community to temporarily foster. Having volunteers who can spend time with the animals and get to know them more to see what kind of home they would thrive in is important to their adoption process and success, Community Engagement Coordinator Minnie Buckhaults said. 

“We’re really doing anything and everything we can do to get these dogs out of the shelter and into a home,” Buckhaults said. “We have a new city ordinance here that requires owned animals to be microchipped, so we are offering five dollar microchips here in the community.” 

Houston Humane Society cited a significant surge in its intake after people started to go back to work due to their pets developing anxiety issues without having their humans at home. People found themselves without the resources to care for their pet after all and surrendered them back to the shelter, or the pets became strays after escaping their yard.

“We’re seeing a lot more surrenders than adoption. Number one, we want to see how we can prevent owners having to give away their animals for financial reasons, so we started our pet resources program and the biggest part of that is our pet pantry and distributing pet food. We also have coupons for our wellness clinic,” Houston Humane Assistant Marketing Manager Macey Staes said. 

In 2020, Houston Humane took in 778 dogs and adopted out 580. So far in 2023 it has already taken in more dogs than it adopted in 2022, at 513. A total of 374 have been adopted so far this year. For the most part, intakes and adoptions have stayed about the same since their surge in 2020, the shelter said.

No two shelters are the same, and each community has something different available to them in terms of resources. The commonality between shelters affected is wanting to empower their community to know how to properly care for their pets in a way that prevents animal overpopulation (and providing them with the resources they need to do that) and teaching people how to care for a stray when they find one. 

“I think the community is going to look to us for guidance,” Valenta says. “They see an issue, but we can’t expect them to be waking up at 3 a.m. thinking about them. They need somewhere to go for guidance, and we can provide that guidance.”