When COVID-19 closed in on the Greater Houston area, many animal rescues and shelters implored those who would be working from home to step up and take a foster pet home for the duration of the stay-home, work-safe order. The public answered the call and soon these animal welfare groups had the majority of their pets safely in foster care. Multiple independent efforts helped shelters across the country reduce their in-house populations, and many have reported that they are close to running out of adoptable dogs and cats. However, there is an alternative side to this story that is being overlooked.

As shelters have reduced on-site staff to comply with social distancing, most of them have greatly limited intake or have shut down intake altogether.  As a result, shelters are not actively picking up dogs and cats from the streets and are operating with limited intake hours, making it increasingly difficult for people to surrender strays and unwanted pets at the shelter. We know that without the option to turn in animals at the shelter, the homeless population will grow quickly and exponentially.

Even before this pandemic crisis, in a city like Houston and the Greater Houston area, there are hundreds of dogs and cats that enter our shelter and rescue system each week, and thousands each month. With shelters limiting their hours for intake and ceasing to pick up animals from the street, what is happening to the stray population? There is a crisis in the works, which will set back local progress in animal welfare years, if not decades.

For example, Merritt and Beth Clifton, authors of a nonprofit online newspaper and information service, say that across the United States, rescues and shelters take in approximately 8 million unaltered “new” cats and dogs each year, with “new” indicating that the animal had not previously been in a shelter. Of these animals, 50 percent are cats, 50 percent are dogs and 50 percent of the felines and canines are females with the ability to reproduce litters.

Per Merritt and Beth’s math, “This works out to about 24,169 homeless animals per million humans, including about 12,084 litter-bearing females, whose average litter size will be about four, meaning about 48,336 additional puppies and kittens per million people to deal with somehow if shelter intakes and sterilization programs stop right now, at the beginning of ‘puppy and kitten season.’”

If we apply that math to the Greater Houston area, using a population of roughly 7 million people, we are talking about an additional 338,336 dogs and cats on our streets if the COVID-19 crisis keeps shelters and rescue groups nonfunctional for puppy and kitten season.

Recently, a nationally recognized animal welfare organization released guidelines and recommendations for shelters to further limit the qualifications for intake, including leaving seemingly healthy companion animals on the streets. Recommendations also included restricting intake for lost and owner surrendered pets. Additionally, while these guidelines may be helpful in certain regions of our country, they are ineffective here in the Greater Houston area due to year-round breeding that our climate provides. These strategies, while good intentioned for overburden shelters, only lower the standard of care and treatment that should be examined for all animals.

It is the position of Houston PetSet that the standard of care for companion animals on the streets should not differ from companion animals that are currently in loving homes. We as a community should not lower our standards for short term achievements, but always raise our standards for what we hope to achieve.

Houston has always had a massive stray and roaming pet problem. After Hurricane Harvey, many pets were taken in to the shelters and were never claimed. This added a huge financial and emotional burden on the rescue community, many of which are nonprofits funded by a small group of supporters and board members. Due to the fixed City and County animal welfare budgets, raising much needed funds for additional efforts falls on those who are able to raise more money through their nonprofit, or apply for grants from outside of the city or state.

After Hurricane Harvey, Houston raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help with the animal welfare emergency. However, COVID-19 has not only impacted the Greater Houston area. Instead, every city and state in the country is in a state of emergency, and unlike after Hurricane Harvey, national organizations are not concentrating their time, attention and funding solely in the Houston area.

In addition, the animal welfare community has not recovered from years of emotionally draining work. In fact, in a study published in 2019, researchers found that animal care workers were at greater risk for experiencing compassion fatigue than any other caregiving group and their experience of burnout and secondary trauma was more than three times greater than social workers who responded in the aftermath of September 11.

So what happens to all of the dogs and cats who will not be rescued in the coming weeks and months? What happens to all of the pets that will be dumped (a common occurrence in Houston) in the rural pockets of Houston? How is Houston going to manage the additional hundreds of thousands of animals on its streets?

Whether you are an animal lover or not, this becomes a public safety and public health crisis that affects everyone. The main concern of the citizens of Houston, as reported by The UT Health School of Public Health’s 2018 Health of Houston Survey, is stray and roaming animals. We cannot ignore the facts. We have a growing public health, public safety, and quality of life issue that affects almost every community in the region. Our City and County leaders must take the necessary steps to allocate more resources towards solving the stray animal crisis.

With that, the City and County should follow the will of Houstonians, who in the 2020 Kinder Houston Area Survey overwhelmingly supported the dedication of more tax dollars to address the stray animal issue in Houston. Public and private partnerships are key to our mission’s success. Private organizations are dedicating more than $64 million a year to rescue our community’s homeless animals, and now we depend on elected officials and public institutions to meet us halfway so we can continue our work together.