Skyrocketing prices on food, fuel and housing throughout Metro Atlanta are forcing pet owners to make some heartbreaking decisions about their four-legged friends.
And those decisions are bringing local shelters to the breaking point.
According to Heather Friedman, the chief marketing officer for Lifeline Animal Project, rising costs, housing insecurity and job losses are leading to an unprecedented increase in pets being surrendered to shelters.
“People are facing difficult decisions, and it’s a trend that we are seeing, not only in Atlanta, but from California to the East Coast,” Friedman said. “We usually see the number of animals in our shelters peak in the summer, but this year, we reached those levels in January.”
A decline in rescue partners, as well as a significant dip in adoptions, has proven to be a recipe for disaster. According to Lifeline’s State of the Shelter report, “all communities are facing the aftershocks of the pandemic. For animal shelters, those challenges include overpopulated and understaffed facilities, higher intake and fewer adopters, and a substantial decrease in rescue transfer support.”
In 2022, according to the report, the shelter has seen a 14% to 30% decline in the number of animals leaving with rescue partners, as well as a decline in the number of lost pets being reunited with their families.
“Not only are there more animals currently in the shelters, but they are staying longer, which impacts their physical and mental wellbeing,” the report said.
LifeLine operates both the Fulton County and DeKalb County Animal Services.
Dana Gaines, a Dunwoody resident and a member of the DeKalb County Animal Services Advisory Board, has seen firsthand the stress that a surrendered pet experiences when entering the shelter, especially the effect it has on older dogs.
“It’s the saddest thing ever,” she said. “Watching them sit and wait for their owners to return is heartbreaking. It’s just awful.”
Gaines has also experienced the satisfaction of adopting a surrendered dog and making a significant contribution to its quality of life, no matter how long or short. In the case of her latest adoptee, Sasha, a 12-year-old Lab mix, it was short – less than five months.
Gaines and her husband, Jack, rescued Sasha from a family who was moving to Colorado and, because of circumstances beyond their control, was not able to house her. Sasha fit seamlessly into the Gaines family, which included another dog and a cat.
“She was probably the most precious and sweet dog I have ever had, and we’ve had eight,” she said. “She adapted perfectly.”
Soon after adopting her, Gaines noticed that Sasha’s lymph nodes around her neck were getting larger. A trip to the vet confirmed that Sasha had an aggressive form of cancer that led to an alarming and swift decline.
“She really plummeted after that,” Gaines said. “When the time came, we did the right thing.”
Friedman and Gaines say there are many mechanisms in place in order to ease the strain on pet owners and the shelter system, including the Pets for Life program, which offers free food, veterinary care, services and information to pet owners in selected ZIP Codes who have limited or non-existent access to pet wellness resources.
In addition, Friedman said the shelter offers tips for people who find stray animals to reunite them with their families instead of surrendering them immediately.
“More than 60% of animals that are lost are found within a mile of their homes,” Friedman said. “For the first 48 hours after a pet is found, we ask people to walk the animals around the block and post their pictures on Next Door or Facebook rather than taking them immediately to a shelter.”
More information about the program, called Friendly Finders, can be found online.
Gaines said she also advises people to consider the lifespan of a typical dog or cat and commit fully to it before adopting.
“I can’t preach it enough, if you are getting a dog, it’s a 15-year commitment and maybe 20 for a cat,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do.”