Matt’s Blog: Why We Can and Should Be Helping Vulnerable Animals During the COVID-19 Crisis

May 26, 2020

ASPCA staff member holding a kitten

By Matt Bershadker, ASPCA CEO

If your family is among the more than 50 million American households with pets, you know first-hand what a source of comfort they can be during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Institutes of Health affirms that interactions between pets and people decrease levels of stress-related hormones and lower blood pressure, as well as reduce feelings of loneliness and boost your mood. 

A pet's love is also unconditional and constant—an invaluable gift during this very uncertain time. My own dogs, Tarzan and Loki, help my entire family cope with our fear and anxiety through their playful antics and loyal temperament. 

Because animals play such meaningful roles in our lives—whatever our circumstances—it's especially important to understand and act on the roles we can play to preserve their safety and health. 

But what can we do to help vulnerable animals during a crisis that has so dramatically restricted how we live, work and travel? More than you might think.

1. Focus on Facts

It's crucial to start by understanding the most current facts as we know them about COVID-19 transmission to and from animals. The most recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and a number of university shelter medicine programs emphasize that there is no current evidence that pets can transmit the virus to people. Dogs and cats also do not appear to be easily infected with COVID-19 under natural conditions, and if they do get infected, there's little to no evidence that they become seriously ill.

Like all information we learn about COVID-19, recommendations may change with new findings, but it's critically important to rely on news and information sources that prioritize science over sensationalism. Don't trust a provocative headline or a random tweet—trust public health, veterinary and infectious disease experts. 

2. Foster and Adopt Vulnerable Animals

This crisis is putting immense stress on animal shelters across the country. Many are coping with severe reductions in services, available staff and volunteers, as well as unprecedented shortages of funds and resources. Complicating these challenges is the start of "kitten season," a feline breeding period that will continue unabated throughout the spring and summer. As a result, many shelters desperately need foster caregivers and adopters.

The good news is that a growing number of state and local governments are allowing animal shelters to continue their lifesaving operations during the pandemic by deeming their work "essential services." The reasoning is clear: If pets are important, so too are the organizations committed to their health and protection. 

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and across the country, animal shelters and veterinarians are adjusting operations to prioritize services for urgent cases, as well as implementing creative solutions to ensure staff, animal and community safety. Some of these innovative measures include telemedicine, appointment-only and call-ahead adoptions, drive-up fostering and adoptions, online trainings and at-home volunteer projects. 

We're already seeing heroic and unprecedented fostering and adoption enthusiasm in several cities, including a nearly 70% increase in animals going into foster care through our own NYC and Los Angeles foster programs. Since March 15, more than 1,600 people have completed online foster applications for our New York City and Los Angeles foster programs, representing an increase of approximately 400 percent when compared to traditional application numbers during this period. More than 600 animals from across our foster programs are currently in foster care.

If you're interested in helping homeless animals in your community, contact your local shelter to find out what it needs and how you can lend a hand. Visit your shelter's website to see available animals, learn what kind of fostering training or orientations are available or required, foster or adopt if you can, and share what you learn with friends and family.

When you temporarily foster cats or dogs in your home, keep in mind that you're not only saving lives but freeing up valuable space at shelters for other animals in need. This benefit to shelters is especially significant during the pandemic as staffs cope with shrinking capacities and social distancing recommendations that complicate their normal operations.

3. Be Prepared for Emergencies 

A pet's first line of defense in emergencies is a well-prepared owner, but because COVID-19 may render some owners unable to fulfill their responsibilities, we encourage pet owners to identify two or more emergency caretakers who can assist with pet care obligations if that becomes necessary. Emergency caretakers should have house keys and written permission to access the owner's residence and to make decisions for the pet. 

By doing this, you're also helping to ensure your shelter's limited space and resources are available for animals who don't have such safety nets in place and may have nowhere else to go. 

We also advise pet owners to stock up on food and other pet supplies, keep all pet identification and veterinary information in one place, and make veterinary contact information easily accessible.

4. Helping Pets and People on a National Scale

When you help pets, you help people, and when you help people, you help pets, so the ASPCA has created and expanded community-focused programs across the country that serve both groups. 

In March, in collaboration with pet food and foundation partners, we launched the COVID-19 Relief & Recovery Initiative. This $5 million response effort will grant a minimum $2 million to animal welfare organizations in critical need of funds and provide pet food to vulnerable pet owners through pet food distribution centers and curbside delivery services in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami and Asheville, North Carolina. 

This program has distributed food to more than 100,000 dogs, cats, and horses. The ASPCA is also donating free pet food to local shelters throughout the country to support their own food distribution efforts.

We are also providing emergency pet boarding for NYC pets whose owners are affected by COVID-19, managing a NYC COVID-19 Pet Hotline in coordination with the New York City Animal Planning Task Force, and opening and advancing more veterinary services for animals in need across the country.

And from June 5-7, we’re hosting National Adoption Weekend, (#AdoptFromHome) to encourage and enable animal shelters to perform virtual adoptions as well as help their foster networks complete safe adoptions from their homes. These capabilities may become vital as states loosen restrictions and more pet owners return to work. Animal shelters that register for the event will receive tools, training and other assistance to perform no-contact adoptions and help foster families place their animals.

5. Don't Give Up Hope

In March, I said this is not a time to feel helpless or hopeless, and I believe that just as fervently today. We can all make a difference and save lives, whether you’re a national organization providing food and support, a shelter experimenting with new ways to rehome their residents, a veterinarian embracing innovations to accommodate more patients, or a family making room in their hearts and homes for a new pet. 

When the crisis finally ends and we adjust to a new normal, let's ensure we can look back on this stressful period as not just a time of challenge and fear, but also of tremendous resilience, courage and commitment on behalf of vulnerable pets and people who needed our help... and received it.