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Social distancing. Vaccine mandates. Quarantines. Remote learning. Animal shelter overcrowding. What do all these of things have in common? They’re all by-products of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Animal overpopulation, and by extension, overcrowding in animal shelters, has always been a problem. But the last two years have been especially challenging.
Tara Czekaj is the 18th Congressional District leader for the Humane Society of the United States. She says that the pandemic has created the perfect storm for pet overpopulation and overcrowding in shelters.
“It’s an issue two years in the making. Homeless animal populations and shelter overcrowding was a concern before COVID – but COVID has exacerbated absolutely everything,” Czekaj says.
Czekaj cites employee retention, lack of volunteers and donations, and an overall shortage of resources as key reasons for the explosion in homeless animal populations.
“Because spay/neuter surgeries were put on hold during Pandemic Part I, rescuers and TNVR (Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return) volunteers saw explosions of litters. Most non-life-saving pet surgeries were put on hold during Pandemic Part I to mitigate the spread of COVID, but also because many veterinary hospitals had to give their PPE and ventilators to human hospitals…some shelters are close to having to hold animals in staff bathrooms.”
Amanda Coats is a TNVR volunteer who has been rescuing dogs and cats for 20 years. She predicted that the lockdown in March 2020 would have disastrous consequences for both communities and animals.
“I warned rescuers in March 2020 to expect an influx of kittens needing to be rescued during the pandemic. The population is completely out of control,” Coats says.
By her own estimate, Coats traps 300 cats per year. But there are probably tens of thousands of homeless cats in the Mon Valley, if not more. “[The number of stray cats] has increased at least 25 percent since the pandemic. Surrenders have increased by 15 percent.” Cats also present unique challenges to rescuers, Coats says.
“Catching cats is hard…they hide themselves well,” Coats says. “They can have up to four litters a year, and those litters can have anywhere from two to seven kittens. If you don’t fix the female cat, next year you’ll see 20.”
There are numerous health benefits of getting a cat fixed, says Emilie St. Landau, veterinary technician at the White Oak Animal Safe Haven.
“Spaying a female cat significantly decreases the risk of ovarian cancer and ovarian cysts. It also prevents them from going into heat and the behavior changes that come with that. Neutering male cats makes them easier to keep inside, and will stop them from spraying or becoming territorial.”
St. Landau says that cat overpopulation is so prevalent because cats are induced ovulators – meaning they can get pregnant at any time of year.
“Cats can have kittens at any time, where with dogs it can only happen once or twice a year,” St. Landau says. “There are also a lot more regulations for dogs.”
There are signs of progress now that businesses have reopened. This spring, Coats will instruct the staff of the White Oak Animal Safe Haven about community cat care. The re-opening of vet clinics will allow more owners to get their pets spayed or neutered. But challenges remain.
“Vet clinics are backlogged. A lot of people surrendered their pets when they went back to work in person. Abandonment/dumping is on the rise. Cat care isn’t really regulated, not like dog care,” Czekaj says.
The borough of White Oak passed an ordinance in 2021 making it unlawful to feed or keep feral cats if they cause a nuisance to neighbors. Similar legislation has been introduced in Export, Port Vue, Penn Hills and Verona.
“Even if you’re not an animal lover, if we can’t fix this, this will affect you at some point,” Czekaj says. “Community cat colonies will explode. Look at Houston, Texas – there are packs of stray dogs living on the streets.”
So how can the public help to resolve this problem?
“We need fosters, volunteers, and donors. Donate food or money. If you can’t foster, volunteer,” Czekaj says.
Coats agrees. “The only humane solution is TNVR programs. Learn to trap, feed a colony, build shelters, volunteer, foster…participate in anything involving TNVR. And fix your pets!”
To learn more about helping homeless animals, call the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh at 412-345-7300 or visit them online.
Sarah Turnbull is a freelance writer in Irwin. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published January 31, 2022.