Module 7: Get to Know a Shelter

Animal Sheltering in the age of COVID

Animal sheltering has never faced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic before. Like other businesses and public services, shelter operations quickly pivoted to essential functions overnight. Spay/neuter programs were shuttered. Shelter workers and volunteers were unable to work. Shelters braced for pets coming in from families stricken by the virus, not knowing if the pets themselves would be infected.

Cutting back to essential functions necessitated a quick reduction in the number of animals in shelters to minimize bringing personnel together to care for them. Shelters called upon their communities to help by delaying relinquishments, reuniting lost and found animals outside of the shelter system, and providing temporary homes to foster pets.


Shelter personnel in PPE
Shelter personnel donned personnel protective equipment (PPE) as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the US.


Beginning in late February 2020, national humane organizations and shelter leaders began meeting daily to share experiences and protocols, to develop guidelines in response to rapidly changing conditions, and to preserve critical functions while staying safe by social distancing. In the early days of the pandemic, the following guidelines were developed to identify the essential functions of animal control organizations in protecting public safety and animal welfare in the face of workforce reductions and the need to slow the spread of the virus.


National Animal Care and Control Statement on Animal Control Functions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Logo of the National Animal Care and Control Association

For the safety of our officers and the public they serve, NACA is advising all officers to take extra measures to mitigate the short and long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. These measures include protecting themselves properly to reduce risk of spreading the virus, as well as working to manage and minimize the number of new animals entering our shelters.

As members of the public safety community we have an obligation to perform our sworn duties during disasters both natural and man-made. To that end, NACA recommends the following: High priority/emergency calls: At this time, officers should continue to respond to emergency and high priority calls.

High priority/emergency: Calls include law enforcement assistance, injured or sick stray animals, cruelty and neglect complaints, bite complaints, and dangerous and aggressive dog complaints.

Non-emergency calls and activities: Officers should suspend low priority/non-emergency activity. This includes non-aggressive stray animal pick-up, leash law and licensing complaints, barking and nuisance complaints, trapping and transport of community cats, and conflict mitigation scenarios.

Shelter intake reduction: Animal control agencies should take active measures to reduce non-essential shelter intake. Measures taken should include returning pets in the field instead of impounding them, suspending non-emergency owner surrender intake, and encouraging owners who are ill to keep their pets at home whenever possible.

Personal protective equipment: Animal control officers should be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) for cases requiring a response to a location with someone who is sick or has been exposed to COVID-19. Officers should make every effort to not enter the home of anyone who is known to have been exposed to the virus.

For ongoing information, please continue referring to all updates from the Centers for Disease Control:


Data from more than 1,000 animal shelters tracked in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that shelter intake plummeted by more than 25%, whereas sending pets to foster homes reached all-time highs. Despite mass media assertions claiming a surge in adoptions of “pandemic puppies,” adoptions were actually down compared to the year before the pandemic, mostly as a result of drastic decreases in intake.  Similarly, sensationalized media reports of increased returns of adopted animals to shelters as families return to work and school are not supported by shelter data.

In 2023, shelters across the country are challenged by decreased adoptions and transfers, increased relinquishments, and increased crowding and disease outbreaks. Euthanasia is increasing for the first time in decades. Length of stay is prolonged, especially for big dogs. The veterinary workforce shortage was exacerbated by the COVID shutdown, leading to a shortfall of 2.7 million spay/neuter surgeries in 2000-2021, a gap that is still unaddressed. The offspring of those animals are likely now having offspring of their own. The shortage of veterinary care, spiraling veterinary costs, and socioeconomic downturns are combining to reduce access to veterinary care, which is increasing pressure on shelters and low-cost clinic to fill the gap.


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Integrating Veterinary Medicine with Shelter Systems Copyright © 2020 by University of Florida is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.