Is pet food inflation driving pet surrenders to shelters?

Pet intakes at U.S. animal shelters are up in 2022 but still lower than in pre-pandemic 2019, though worrisome indicators, especially for dogs, bear watching.

Phillips D 1 Headshot
(Halfpoint | fotolia)
(Halfpoint | fotolia)

One of the most positive pet-related outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the increased adoption of pets. As people were forced to lock down at home, many turned to new furry, feathered or scaled creatures for companionship, both existing pet owners adding to their menageries and people becoming pet owners for the first time.

Are we seeing the counter-effect now? With many returning to work or school and worrying they can no longer properly care for a new pet or, more often, as pet food and other types of inflation cause financial strain for consumers, we are reading and hearing more news reports of pets being relinquished to shelters and other animal organizations.

Is this just anecdotal information or regional occurrences? What does the data say?

Shelter intakes still lower than in 2019, dog indicators concerning

According to Shelter Animals Count, a U.S. database tracking intakes and “outcomes” at shelters nationwide, intakes of animals have increased in January-June 2022 compared to the same period in 2021 but are still lower than the same period in 2019. Overall, intakes are up 2.9% year over year (YOY) but down 14.4% compared to 2019. That’s the overall highlight, but there are data and factors within it that bear watching.

For example, the portion of intakes from the community—as in, from animals being turned into shelters by owners and others—has risen from 2021 to 2022, especially for dogs. Overall intake numbers for dogs are up 4.5% in 2022 YOY (though down 17.4% compared to 2019; for cats, the rates are 1.2% and -11.3%, respectively).

By contrast, dogs are being transferred in (from other areas or states with more homeless animals) at lower rates this year than in 2021 or 2019. During the height of the pandemic, and even before, it was common for shelters and areas with a surplus of animals to send them to ones with high demand but not enough adoptable animals. That may be changing, according to this data.

Other insights include the fact that the rate of cat adoptions has risen from 51.4% in 2019 to 59.6% in 2022, while the dog adoption rate has increased only slightly, 53.4% to 55.1%. In addition, “non-live outcomes”—defined by Shelter Animals Count as deaths of animals in shelters due to illness or other natural causes, pets lost while in shelters, euthanasia due to too-full shelters and owner-intended euthanasia—are far below 2019 numbers, but the rate of dog euthanasia is increasing. Which speaks to some shelters having more dogs than they can adequately care for or adopt out.

Bottom line, the data point to a mixed picture: In general, the number of pet relinquishments to shelters is still relatively low, but with dogs especially, some worrisome indicators are trending up. The Shelter Animals Count report seems to address how and why those are showing up in news reports. “The primary driver of shelters feeling at—or over—capacity in the first half of 2022 is due to the imbalance of too many animals staying behind as total outcomes have been falling short of intakes for month after month beginning in 2021,” it reads.

Pet food, other inflation hitting ‘less prosperous’ pet owners

In reality, despite all the feel-good stories of rising pet adoptions over the past two-plus years, it has always been a mixed scenario—what David Sprinkle, director of pet market research for Packaged Facts, called “the riddle of pet population in the wake of the pandemic” in an April 2022 column. His data was also U.S. centric, showing patterns of pet adoptions rising from 2019 to 2021 in U.S. households in certain demographics (income at or more than US100,000, home owners, have no children, have graduate degrees) “offset by pet ownership attrition among less prosperous or more budget-conscious demographics.”

It stands to reason that this same situation is playing out in other markets around the world. For example, recently reported on a survey by the U.K. charity Dogs Trust, which indicated up to 40% of British dog owners having difficulty providing for their dogs’ needs. “The charity has warned that the increase of prices is leaving many dog owners unable to provide for their dogs,” the article says. “One in five (20%) pet parents are worried about the cost of dog food, while 15% are concerned about the insurance. In addition, Dog Trust has received a record number of calls from people asking them to take in their dogs, in the face of the rising cost of living.”

Thus, unless and until inflation in pet food and other consumer goods categories starts noticeably declining, easing the economic burden on consumers, more owners struggling financially may be forced to make the painful decision to surrender their pets or depend on pet food donation programs and similar services. Which, according to Shelter Animals Count data, more and more U.S. shelters offer to pets and their owners in need.



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