Johnson County animal shelters struggle to cope with surge in ‘pandemic pet’ returns

“In my three years rescuing, I have never experienced anything even close to this. I’m not sure the general public realizes how much the shelters and rescues in this city are struggling," said Kaitlin Thompson with Melissa's Second Chances in Shawnee. Above, Hank, an 8-month-old rescue at the shelter, was adopted as a puppy during the pandemic and has now been returned.

Local animal rescue groups say they are facing an influx of “pandemic pet” returns along with a sudden drop in adoptions as the world begins to return to normal.

The Shawnee Mission Post talked to Melissa’s Second Chances in Shawnee, Pawsitive Tails Dog Rescue in Olathe, and The Rescue Project, a foster-based program covering the Kansas City metro area.

All three rescue groups experienced a dramatic increase last year in pet adoptions, a trend seen across the country as people stuck at home during the early months of the pandemic rushed to find pets to keep them company or break the monotony of stay-at-home orders.

Now, these same groups are seeing the reverse effects.

As families re-establish some of their pre-pandemic routines and people return to in-person work, pets are being returned at alarming rates.

“None of the rescue [shelters] can even attempt to keep up,” said Kaitlin Thompson, marketing and public relations manager for Melissa’s Second Chances in Shawnee. “In my three years rescuing, I have never experienced anything even close to this. I’m not sure the general public realizes how much the shelters and rescues in this city are struggling.”

‘We knew this was going to happen’

Some dogs, like Freddy the cattle dog, were adopted during the pandemic as puppies and then returned. He had some behavioral issues that he’s working on. Freddy is at Melissa’s Second Chances.

In 2019, its first year of operation, Melissa’s Second Chances had more than 1,000 adoptions. Last year, they had nearly 1,400. Halfway through this year, they’ve been able to complete just 410 adoptions.

At this time last year, Melissa’s didn’t even have a waiting list. Now, they have close to 40 dogs and puppies and nearly 100 cats and kittens on the waiting list.

Meanwhile, The Rescue Project also saw a significant uptick in pet adoptions last year — well over twice the number of adoptions they had in 2019. But this year, they’ve seen a tripling in pet returns, despite a stringent screening process, said Mae Spencer, director of operations.

Pawsitive Tails in Olathe, a group that saves dogs and puppies in kill shelters, is seeing a high influx of returns as well — more than double compared to last year or the year before. Most dogs being returned were adopted last year during the pandemic.

“It’s really sad, and we knew in the rescue community that this was going to happen, and we tried to prepare for that,” said Crystal Tucker, director and founder. “But nothing could have prepared us for what is actually happening. It’s so much worse than we really thought that it would be.”

Pawsitive Tails adopted out almost a thousand dogs last year, 300 more than in 2019.

While these rescue groups felt excited during the surge in adoptions and new foster families last year, they also shared a sense of skepticism that these new owners would stick to it. They tried counseling families and new adoptive owners about potential challenges once the pandemic ended.

The three rescue shelters the Post talked to say just a small percentage of pet returns they’re experiencing now are a result of dire changes, say a death or illness of an owner, a job loss or severe financial strain.

But most are because new owners’ lifestyles changed with the easing of the pandemic.

“It’s hard to explain because you’re saving so many dogs because you have so many places to put them, and you’re excited for that time,” Tucker said, “and then at the back of your head, you know next year the bottom’s going to fall out and we’re going to be getting all of these dogs back.”

Separation anxiety and behavioral issues

The majority of puppies and dogs that have been returned are struggling with behavioral issues. Many of the dogs developed separation anxiety once their new owners returned to work at the office and left home for large chunks of the day.

Some dogs have also not been properly socialized with other dogs because their owners were social distancing last year.

Rescue groups have tried to prevent these issues from happening by counseling families to carefully consider their decisions to adopt. They’ve offered tips on how to help train puppies and dogs and prevent separation anxiety and other behavioral issues.

But even dogs without behavioral issues are being returned.

It’s also kitten season, and dozens of kittens are looking for new homes. Above, a litter at Melissa’s Second Chances.

“It’s so sad; how do you take this dog that you’ve loved for over a year and now all of a sudden you no longer have time for them?” Tucker with Pawsitive Trails said. “It just breaks my heart.”

Spencer with The Rescue Project said 90% of families who returned their pets declined their offer of free training to help them deal with these issues.

It was “a shocker” to her that most people who returned their pets couldn’t or wouldn’t fit them into their post-pandemic lifestyles.

“I think that, to us, demonstrated that the animals were representing a short-term commitment that they were not interested in keeping,” Spencer said. “People were looking for comfort, and there’s a lot of loneliness in COVID. I think the intent, perhaps, was well intended, but maybe just wasn’t based in a super logical place as much as it was an emotional need.”

New adoptions drop

Meanwhile, new adoptions have slowed to a crawl with record-low numbers for these rescue groups, even with puppies and kittens who usually get adopted within a few days, and many foster homes are already maxed out.

For instance, puppies typically would only be on the Pawsitive Tails website for three or four days before finding a new home. Now, puppies wait for weeks without a single inquiry.

To top it all off, it’s the middle of kitten season, and hundreds of kittens are looking for new homes. Spay and neuter services were shut down for much of last year, resulting in a “tsunami of kittens,” this year Thompson said.

“We’re putting the word out there for the community that we’re in a crisis and that we’re going to have to stop taking new animals if we keep slowing our adoptions down,” said Kaitlin Thompson. Above, a kitten named Kerri at Melissa’s Second Chances.

“We have a kitten adoption special right now,” Thompson said laughing, noting their $50 discount. “Please, come get a kitten, everybody.”

Capacity is reduced this summer at Melissa’s Second Chances in Shawnee because foster homes are taking a break after a strenuous year, Thompson added. She isn’t too hopeful things will improve by the time school starts, a notoriously slow time for adoptions.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Thompson said. “We’re putting the word out there for the community that we’re in a crisis and that we’re going to have to stop taking new animals if we keep slowing our adoptions down.”

To prevent these challenges from happening in the future, these rescue groups are asking the community to listen to their counseling before deciding to adopt, and after adopting, to then follow through with their commitment.

“We’re just treading water,” Tucker added. “As far as how people can help, they can keep their dogs. That would help so much, if people would just keep their dogs and work through the small issues.”

All three rescue groups are also looking for more foster homes. Check this list for more information about each: