Fact Check

Are US Animal Shelters Seeing Pet Returns After 'Pandemic Puppy Boom'?

This pandemic decision came with long-term responsibilities.

Published May 27, 2021

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 15:  A Chihuahua waits adoption at a Los Angeles Department of Animal Services shelter on December 15, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Chihuahuas make up about a third of the dogs at many California shelters, so many that some shelters are shipping Chihuahuas to other states to find homes. A shelter in Oakland sent about 100 to Arizona, Oregon and Washington. Recently, a Los Angeles city shelter flew 25 Chihuahuas to Nashua, New Hampshire where all found homes within a day through the local Humane Society. Experts have blamed the glut of abandoned Chihuahuas in California on the influence of pop culture, a bad economy, puppy mills and backyard breeders. Fans sometimes abandon the dogs when they are no longer new and cute to them or when expensive vet bills start to add up. The tiny dogs are named for the Mexican state of Chihuahua.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
Image courtesy of Getty Images
In spring 2021, pet shelters saw a spike in the U.S. of people returning animals they adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several animal rescue workers have told journalists they experienced a spike in returns at their local shelters. However, it was erroneous to frame those isolated experiences as part of a larger national trend.

In spring 2021, as more Americans got vaccinated against COVID-19 and returned to in-person gatherings, reports highlighted an alleged downside to the latest stage of the pandemic: People who had adopted pets during lockdowns to keep them company were supposedly regretting their decision.

"We were afraid of that when this first started,” a Florida animal rescue worker told the Tampa Bay Times.

Other news outlets attempted to ring an alarm on the supposed trend, as well. A BBC video that published on May 5 said rescue agencies across the U.S. were "struggling to keep up" with an influx of returns as more people's schedules returned to pre-pandemic busyness. That story package was titled, "What happened after the pandemic puppy boom" and featured the experience of one animal rescue based in Virginia.

Citing that rescue's perspective, as well as a leader of an animal rescue in Colorado who also reported a higher-than-normal rate of returns as COVID-19 restrictions lifted, a May 12 USA TODAY story also alleged in a headline:

"Everyone wanted a puppy when the pandemic began, but now those dogs are being returned."

But, ultimately, the claim was significantly over-stated.

While it was certainly possible individual animal rescue organizations in the U.S. documented a "surge of sent-back pets" in spring 2021 — and it was also simultaneously plausible that some, or a majority, of those returns were animals that had been adopted during the pandemic — there was no evidence of a nationwide problem, as of this writing.

"Despite alarmist headlines tied to regional reports of a surge in owner surrenders, this trend is not currently evident on a national level with many organizations simply seeing a return to pre-pandemic operations and intake," the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) said in a May 26 statement.

In other words, the New York City-based nonprofit said rescue groups were noticing a shift in return levels — not because new pet owners had a change of heart — but because COVID-19 restrictions had previously hindered rescue operations. For instance, rules on social distancing could have challenged volunteer groups from canvassing neighborhoods for stray dogs, or limited shelters' hours of operation.

According to monthly reports from PetPoint, a website that aggregates data from more than 1,100 animal welfare organizations in the U.S., yes, shelters were experiencing an increase in pets getting dropped off in spring 2021, but the rate appeared to be returning to pre-pandemic levels, according to The New York Times.

“We will be watching this closely over the next several months,” Michael San Filippo, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association, told the news outlet. “Certainly we’ve been aware of this as a possibility since we began hearing about more people bringing pets home during the pandemic. But so far we haven’t seen any evidence of a corresponding increase in surrenders.”

Furthermore, the ASPCA's statement highlighted findings of a roughly 5,000-household survey that showed 90% of dog owners and 85% of cat owners who adopted in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak still had the pets in their homes.

The organization's CEO, Matt Bershadker, said in another article on its website:

"[No] — large numbers of people are not returning the pets they fostered and adopted. Instead, they are benefitting from the compassionate actions they took during the darkest moments of the pandemic, and joyfully doubling down on those commitments."

In sum, we rate this claim "False."

Jessica Lee is Snopes' Senior Assignments Editor with expertise in investigative storytelling, media literacy advocacy and digital audience engagement.

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