Pandemic pets: What you need to know

Many breeders and adoption centres saw a rising interest in bringing home a new pet during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Unsplash)

Human beings have kept animals as pets for ages, so it’s not surprising that this practice has maintained its popularity. Surveys conducted by the Canadian Animal Health Institute from 2018 to 2020 showed that a pet cat or dog can be found in approximately 58 per cent of Canadian households. 

However, during the current COVID-19 pandemic where individuals were forced to stay home, there has been an increase in pet adoptions and purchases, otherwise known as “pandemic pets,” according to Dr. Kelly McCutcheon, a clinical psychologist.

Workers and volunteers at animal shelters and rescue centres throughout the GTA have also reported such findings.

An increased number of adoption applications

Hannah Sotropa is the assistant manager of the communications department at Toronto Humane Society, and she reports that the interest in pet adoption during the pandemic has been “incredible,” adding that Toronto Humane Society received over 11,000 applications during the first few months following the initial shut down. 

Other organizations who have seen a similar increase include Action Volunteers for Animals (AVA) and Rabbit Rescue Incorporated, with the latter taking in almost double the amount of rabbits than normal.

Haviva Porter, executive director of Rabbit Rescue, says: “The rise in incoming adoption applications has at least doubled or tripled since the start of the pandemic.” 

Though waiting can be hard, it is important that individuals understand that more applications will not speed up the adoption process. 

Fourth-year English and psychology student Hastee Vasavada and her family are looking to adopt a pet, claiming, “I’ve applied to several places without a single response.” 

Sotropa reports that despite the interest, “with limitations on our rescue transport program, we had fewer animals, hence fewer adoptions overall.”

Porter explains that since shelters closed during the pandemic, “we have been thrown into a chaotic situation where our workload exploded exponentially” because “the number of dumped bunnies skyrocketed to an all-time high.”

According to Porter, rabbits are the third most abandoned pet, so Rabbit Rescue Inc. “already has the job of creating databases of volunteers in each city to help catch dumped, domestic rabbits.” However, due to minimal staff and no means to adopt rabbits, they have been asked to “help clear out” the remaining animals in the shelters.

Porter notes that this is not only a problem in Ontario, but also in Quebec, where they assisted shelters during the pandemic to avoid euthanization of rabbits.

In fact, Toronto Rabbit Rescue (TRR) has closed down, citing personal reasons, hectic work schedules, and the impact of COVID-19. They are no longer taking in rabbits or providing adoption services.

Multiple lockdowns causing Canadians to desire company

While lockdowns were set in place to keep COVID-19 from spreading, they also kept humans apart from their friends and family. Consequently, more Canadians admitted to suffering from loneliness, isolation, and other related mental health issues.

Vasavada says the pandemic worsened her pre-existing mental health conditions during the winter because “everything seemed bleak and hopeless.” 

Experts, shelter volunteers and workers, and pet owners all agree that pets can have a positive effect on mental health.

McCutcheon explains: “It is generally acknowledged that pets provide companionship, emotional support, routine, exercise, and other amazing benefits including relieving stress.” 

Despite battling mental health issues, Vasavada says, “The walks I would take my puppy on and his absolutely loving and gentle personality has given me a lot to look forward to and be proud of as well.” 

Founder of Thrive4life Holistic Pet Food, Lucy Jabrayan, also states that pets aid in helping to cope with loneliness as well as other challenges, such as chronic stress. This can especially be the case for single people and seniors. 

Additionally, Jodi Robins, who volunteers with AVA, says that pets can teach children responsibility and “give them a playmate during such uncertain times.”

Animal visitation programs are also in place for those in long-term care and retirement homes — the guidelines of which in York Region list detailed instructions on how to choose animals in ways that keep both them and the elderly safe during visitation sessions.

Other reasons for getting a pet can vary from mere companionship and substitution of family and friends, to perceiving the pandemic as an opportune time for the animal’s adjustment period (since it required most of us to stay at home quite a bit).

Having more time at home does not make everyone pet-ready

According to Statistics Canada, 32 per cent of Canadians aged 15 to 69 worked the majority of their hours from home, compared to four per cent in 2016.

In fact, regardless of gender, age, and the amount of children in their home, 90 per cent of all new teleworkers said that they accomplished as much work at home as they had done in their workplace. In addition, 80 per cent of new teleworkers indicated that they would like to work at least half of their hours from home, while 39 per cent of such indicated they would prefer working most hours from home. 

While this suggests that many Canadians may find themselves working from home long term or even permanently, before adopting a new pet, Canadians should bear in mind what will happen once the pandemic is over. 

“Unfortunately, some have adopted pets on a whim, and have not carefully considered the long-term consequences of such a decision and how much work goes into owning an animal for the next 10 years or more,” McCutcheon explains.

In fact, lack of time is rarely the sole reason for animals being given up by their original owners. Toronto Humane Society sees animals returned mainly because of inaccessibility to veterinary services. Sotopra explains that returns happen “if an animal is unwell and the original owner does not have the funds to support the animal.”

Gayle Taylor, a volunteer at Toronto Rabbit Rescue, also notes that rabbits need a veterinarian who is “fully trained and qualified in exotics medicine,” explaining that such vets “are not readily available in many other areas outside of Toronto or Guelph.”

Other common reasons for seeing pets in shelters can include “housing instability, homelessness and/or landlord issues,” adds Sotopra.

With cats, on the other hand, the most common reasons for their returns to AVA are conflict with an existing pet at home or litter box issues, explains Robins. “This is usually an issue that can be addressed with patience and education on behaviour and litterbox solutions including medical and territorial issues, litter box placement, number of litter boxes, and type of litter.”

In the case of rabbit abandonment, “I hear stories of people sending rabbits back to breeders because they had no idea they had to be spayed/neutered,” says Porter. If rabbits are not neutered, this may cause them to spray and become aggressive — which is another major reason for rabbit returns.

Porter says these are common issues because most rabbit breeders are “extremely uneducated,” citing breeding conditions as “shocking” where “deaths are common, and they are used as a tool to make money, rather than being appreciated for the sentient beings they are.”

Porter notes that returning a pet rabbit can be very tragic. “Often when rabbits are returned to breeders, they are killed, as breeders are in the business of selling young baby rabbits, often weaned too early, and thus have no ‘use’ for older ones.”

Other reasons rabbits are returned can be attributed to their large size and also loss of interest when they are gifted to kids. 

Taylor explains that other reasons for surrendering include the owners “moving somewhere that does not allow pets, expecting a baby and/or not having the time or room for the rabbit anymore, or deciding they would rather have a dog or cat.” 

While Jabrayan mainly works with pet owners who keep their pets, she has been the owner of a German Shepherd for five years whose previous owners gave him up. 

“They realized they took on a particular large-breed dog that needed a job with strong leadership, and weren’t able to provide him any,” adds Jabrayan. “That’s when I came in and gave him both those things and more.” 

Shelters and centres setting animals up for success

At AVA, as with any shelter or rescue organization, there is a vetting process that applies to all potential adopters including matching for temperament, behaviour, and age. 

Robins says that the increase in interested adopters that AVA has seen during the pandemic makes the vetting process that much more crucial “to give the animal the best chance for their forever home.” 

“It’s really about getting to know that specific person, what their specific needs are, what the animal’s needs are, and finding the best match possible,” says Sotropra, echoing Robins’ sentiments.

To determine the best suited rabbit owners, Rabbit Rescue Incorporated has a detailed adoption application which matches fitting owners and homes to rabbits. “We ensure all rabbits will have suitable housing, such as x-pens and not cages,” says Porter

Similar to Rabbit Rescue Incorporated, Toronto Rabbit Rescue’s adoption application also assesses suitability of the applicant but is very selective when finding potential homes. They only adopt rabbits to people who either have experience looking after the pet or who are well-equipped and prepared to give them a safe, enjoyable life. 

“After receiving a good application we follow up with an interview and home inspection,” says Taylor. This inspection formerly included a visit to the prospective adopter, and an interview to see and make suggestions on the living arrangements for the rabbit. Due to the pandemic, however, this inspection now takes place over the phone, via photos, and/or video call.

Taylor adds that if someone applied to adopt a rabbit as a companion to a pre-existing rabbit, “then we would make arrangements for the two rabbits to safely meet to assess their compatibility.”

The efforts that rescue centres and shelters put into setting pets up for success suggest that the ultimate outcome of keeping a house pet boils down to the effort of the owner — will they bother to truly understand their pet and its needs in order to avoid abandonment?

Do your research to avoid pet abandonment

Jabrayan grew up with many pets and currently lives with some as well, stating that, “people underestimate how much work a pet actually is, especially working breeds, such as German Shepherds, who require more maintenance than the average breed.” 

However, size should not fool potential dog owners, since all dogs are work.

Before choosing to bring home a new pet during the pandemic, some important points to consider include: training; finances; post-pandemic care; and researching the different breeds to educate yourself on necessities such as exercise requirements, size, temperament, and sociability, to name a few.

McCutcheon also notes the importance of a pet needing to overcome social distancing since the pandemic does not allow pets to socialize with other humans and pets. She further warns that this “can be a problem in the future” and stresses that “separation anxiety is a real thing” because during the pandemic our pets grow used to our constant presence.

Why someone wants to adopt, the commitment it takes, and the budgetary needs are additional items which should be evaluated and contemplated by interested pet owners beforehand. 

“Pet ownership should not be taken lightly or done on a whim,” says Sotropa. 

In order for potential cat adopters to understand what is required of the owner to maintain a healthy relationship with their cat, the AVA website offers information about nutrition and health, troubleshooting common issues, costs of care, choosing the right cat, and even how to prepare for a kitty.

Similar to AVA, Taylor says that TRR publishes plenty of educational material year-round on their social media platforms to help avoid the quality and duration of a pet-owner relationship diminishing. 

“The belief that a rabbit is a cheap and easy ‘starter pet’ to teach kids responsibility could not be farther from the truth,” adds Taylor. “Rabbits can be a family pet but their care must be the responsibility of the adults in the home if they are to survive and thrive.” 

Since rabbits are a prey species, they are more delicate and complicated to take care of than dogs or cats, which are typically predator-esque.

Ontario Canada Rabbits and House Rabbit Society are Facebook groups that Taylor recommends for inexperienced rabbit owners to join if they want to learn how to adequately look after a new rabbit.

Porter suggests fostering, explaining that a “foster parent gets the experience of caring for a rabbit, and can see what it’s like on a daily basis, without the long term commitment, to see if it’s right for them.” 

Fostering also requires minimal financial commitment since most places, like Rabbit Rescue Incorporated, provide proper housing and cover medical bills. 

Avoiding common mistakes with pets 

One of the common mistakes that pet owners make is listening to the nutritional guidance of breeders, and yes, even those who have done a lot of research.

“I don’t know who died and made breeders health experts on nutrition, as they all vary tremendously in terms of advice,” says Jabrayan, explaining that it is important to remember they are not nutrition experts.

Since all pets are different with various needs, similar to humans, where one type of diet may work for one pet that does not necessarily mean it will work for another. 

Jaybrayan advises to “always seek the advice of a pet health specialist, nutritionist or vet, and to continue educating yourself in an ever-changing industry.”

Another common mistake among pet owners is to acquire a furry friend seasonally — a well-known, but decreasing, trend is “Easter Bunnies” which continue to be sold by breeders.

“Animals are not gifts, rabbits are not for Easter,” says Porter. “They are a 10+ year commitment; rabbits and young kids are generally a poor mix.” 

“This has always been such a huge concern that we, and most other rescues, close adoptions for a couple of weeks before and after Easter every year. TRR makes it very clear that no rabbit is going home as an Easter gift,” says Taylor. 

To anyone who finds they can no longer take care of their pet rabbit, Porter says “dumping pet rabbits outside is not a humane option” and warns that “taking them to an overcrowded shelter could be a death sentence.” 

Porter also advises not to give away your pet to the first person that says they will take them. Instead, look into rehoming pets by interviewing potential adopters and ask questions. Rabbit Rescue Incorporated has information on its website about how to go about rehoming.

“Those of us at shelters and rescues all fear the possibility of post-pandemic adoption returns, and what a devastating consequence that rebound will be for the animals,” says Robins. “However, as with anything, education, support and patience really are key to minimizing this potentially heartbreaking problem.”

While Toronto Humane Society works hard at finding animals loving homes, Sotropa states: “If there is a surge in animals being returned or relinquished, we do have the resources and strategies in place to be able to accommodate that surge.” 

However, Sotropa stresses that Toronto Humane Society offers pet owners additional support. “Hopefully, by getting the right information out there, about our different services, such as our training classes and virtual separation anxiety, will help in decreasing the risk of a surge of surrenders.”

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By Brittania Fusca

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