Are People Really Turning Their Backs on Their Pandemic Pets?

Dog adoptions exploded during the COVID shutdown, and that’s led to concern that surrenders would spike as social life resumes

In March of 2020, the world got scary—and fast. As the coronavirus pandemic took hold and we were barraged with warnings to stay home and steer clear of people outside our own households, a sort of isolation that would have seemed unfathomable just days earlier became a day-to-day reality for months on end.

When enjoying companionship with other humans became an impossibility—especially for those living alone—and the bummer news just kept coming, many people adopted dogs. According to mental health expert Laura Rhodes Levin, founder of the Missing Peace Center for Anxiety, it adds up. “There is safety with animals,” she says, adding that it’s not just that we needed to be loved but that we “needed someone who wants constant love.”

There’s also science behind our affinity for canine companionship. Dr. Annette Ermshar, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, says, “Interacting with pets appears to increase dopamine” and “decreases cortisol, also known as the stress hormone.” She adds that during a time of intense chaos (you know, like a global pandemic), a pet can “provide an owner with a routine, an increased schedule, and some degree of predictability and control.”

But as the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available and people resumed their social lives, concern grew among animal advocates that pandemic pups faced an uncertain fate. Last May, a USA Today headline read, “Everyone wanted a puppy when the pandemic began, but now those dogs are being returned.” Los Angeles Animal Services general manager Brenda Barnette told the L.A. Times she was bracing for the worst, particularly if evictions ramp up after the moratorium expires. “If you want to know what keeps me up at night, it’s wondering how we’re going to accommodate all those animals who have been family members, as people start to have to surrender them,” Barnette she told the paper.

L.A. Animal Services didn’t respond to Los Angeles’ requests for comment, but other local animal shelters and rescue organizations indicate that, at least so far, there hasn’t been an influx of surrenders.

In fact, Ariel Dengrove, lifesaving outcomes specialist at Best Friends Animal Society in Los Angeles, says there’s been a “significant decrease in adoption returns since the pandemic.” Best Friends attributes that success to a new dog matching program that was implemented during the pandemic, which allowed the shelter to “take the time to properly match adopters and their pre/post-pandemic lifestyles to the right dog for them.”

The Pasadena Humane Society has also seen a decrease in pet returns. A rep tells Los Angeles that the overall number of dog owner surrenders, including adoption returns, in 2021 is 57 percent lower than it was during the same time period in 2019.

Rhodes-Levin isn’t surprised. Besides that, as she puts it, “Once you have formed a bond with an animal, it seems strange to take it back,” people are still contending with the trauma of the now-resurgent pandemic. What likely we’ll see instead are more people seeking out emotional support credentials for their pandemic pups. “Emotional support pets can help alleviate clinical symptoms such as anxiety and depression, help cope with PTSD, as well as enhance the ability to live independently,” Dr. Ermshaw says.

For everyone else, their emotional connection to their dog may not change dramatically, but the dog’s routine might. Happy Paws Dog Training recommends sessions with a behaviorist if separation anxiety becomes an issue.

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