Crisis Brewing in Southern Animal Shelters

A crisis is brewing in our southern animal shelters. While 2020 and early 2021 saw record adoption rates, summer and fall of 2021 told a different story. The nation celebrated the images of empty shelters even as the pandemic raged. Now those same shelters are at capacity and beyond thanks to a perfect storm of causes.

“Shelters who haven’t had to euthanize in ten or fifteen years, are having to again,” said Tammy Dodson, a long-time rescue advocate who coordinates rescue transports out of Wise County, Virginia, moving dogs and cats north to rescues and adopters via the Animal Rescue Coalition.

Scan the headlines elsewhere in the country…

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., WESH Channel 2- Halifax Humane Society in need of foster families as shelter stretched beyond capacity: Capacity at Halifax Humane Society is 350 cats and dogs but they are way beyond that, caring for at least 410 animals right now.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE — Southland shelter sees wild day of pet abandonment in forest preserves; ‘It’s never happened like this…’

DENVER, FOX channel 31 — Colorado animal rescue groups desperate for foster, forever homes: “One of Denver’s largest animal shelters is calling for help as it reaches capacity. The Dumb Friends League is seeing its highest volume of animals in roughly a decade. Katie Parker, vice president of operations, said they started feeling pressure when they reached 800 animals at their Denver shelter. She said now they’re hovering between 900 and 1000 animals, depending on the day.”

Where are all these dogs coming from? After returning from a tour of 13 shelters and rescues in five southern states, I think I have some idea.

Returned dogs

The national return rate for dogs adopted from shelters and rescues is about 10%. The number holds fairly steady year to year. People return dogs for a variety of reasons — the dog they adopted doesn’t get along with others in the household (two and four-legged), the dog has needs the new family can’t meet in terms of behavior, exercise, medical, or a thousand other reasons both reasonable and unreasonable. During the pandemic, a record number of adoptions took place. It’s not that all those dogs adopted to stave off the loneliness of quarantine are being returned; it’s simply that ten percent of that record number will be a record number of returns.

Owner Surrenders

Dogs that have been adopted, purchased, or acquired elsewhere are being surrendered to shelters and rescues in record numbers. Some of these dogs are young, purebred dogs purchased during the pandemic whose breed eccentricities or needs were too much for a new owner. Many of the dogs being surrendered are given up because their owners can no longer afford them, or their work or housing situation has changed drastically.

Rising birth rates

During 2020 and even into 2021, many veterinarians were closed and/or not performing elective surgeries, so thousands of spay and neuter surgeries were canceled or postponed. And once surgeries were happening again, the backlog forced shelters and rescues who receive ‘rescue rates’ to wait weeks or even longer behind the full-paying clients. This has led to more puppies and kittens landing in shelters.

Normal Animal Control strays, seizures, and court cases

The steady stream of animals that turn up as strays, are seized because of abuse or neglect or abandonment, held as evidence in court cases, or left behind after the death of their owner, continued throughout the pandemic. Strays must be legally held at a shelter for their ‘stray hold’ which is normally 5–10 business days, depending on the jurisdiction. During that time, they can’t be adopted out or transferred to rescue, taking up much-needed kennel space. Dogs seized for legal reasons must be held until their case is settled and cannot be adopted out or transferred to rescue (those dogs were most likely not in the picture of those empty shelters, but they were still being held at the facility).

All of these factors contribute to the rising intake numbers being seen all over the south in shelters and rescues. Those numbers are tough, but as outtakes have dried up, they are even more challenging.

“During the pandemic, rescues were begging us for dogs, but now I’m struggling to find rescues for puppies!” lamented Jo Anne Harding, who coordinates rescue transports from Lee and Dickson County, Virginia.

Adoptions have slowed to a trickle or stopped altogether. Rescues and foster homes are full. No one can take the easy-to-place dogs, let alone the challenging dogs like bully breeds, hound dogs, heartworm positive, and medical cases.

The presence of small dogs, purebreds, and puppies in shelters could be the canary in the coalmine. Those are the desirable dogs that most shelters usually have no trouble adopting out or transferring to rescue. Normally, shelters are full of pit bulls and large mixed breeds, old dogs, and dogs with behavior issues. At one shelter in Simpson County, Kentucky, a Husky paced his kennel maniacally. In Franklin County, Tennessee, a bulldog struggled to turn around in his tiny enclosure, the concrete saturated with urine, and a matted Shih Zu peered out from under a tangle of fur. A litter of chihuahua puppies screamed at the sight of any visitor. In Cowen, West Virginia, at Saving Webster Dogs, a rescue that functions as the county shelter, a beautiful Basset Hound puppy wandered around his muddy kennel, a scruffy terrier jumped at his kennel fence, and a purebred Redbone Coonhound strained at his chain.

As winter settles in, a time when adoptions normally dip, many of these shelters and rescues will face the hardest of decisions. Budgets and spaces will need to stretch. Rescues will be pressed to do even more.

The pandemic led huge numbers of people to seek comfort in the company of animals, adopting animals in record numbers while the pandemic raged. And now as the pandemic recedes, everyone in animal welfare will be challenged to find new solutions. Counties and states must step up, and perhaps all those pandemic-inspired animal lovers will become voices for the animals left in its wake.

Cara Achterberg, co-founder of Who Will Let the Dogs Out and author of 100 Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus, 2020)



Cara is an author, blogger, and shelter dog advocate. She is co-founder of which works to raise awareness & resources for homeless dogs

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
cara sue achterberg

Cara is an author, blogger, and shelter dog advocate. She is co-founder of which works to raise awareness & resources for homeless dogs