It’s been a record year for pet adoptions, but whether the good fortune will continue for “COVID companions” is a question arising as pandemic restrictions begin to ease, say animal protection advocates.
With National Pet Day today, the matter is getting attention from animal welfare officials. They pointed to the soaring adoption rates of a homebound society last year and expressed their concerns now that the world is reopening.
“We might not have many animals now, but when we return to a ‘new normal’ will we go back to having more? I think so,” said Brittany Curran, North Kingstown animal control officer. “It will be a question of whether people have time to care for them.”
For instance, Animal Rescue Rhode Island, based in South Kingstown, reported a 29% adoption increase in 2020 compared to the 2019 rate. This meant a total of 611 pets went to new owners, the organization said.
National Pet Day “is a reminder that animals need humans’ care and concern – not just one day, but every day,” said Anne Schwartz, veterinarian and president of the Rhode Island Veterinary Medical Association.
Pets of All Kinds
These companions come in all forms. From small lizards, fish and dogs to large python snakes, horses and over-sized rabbits, there is a species for just about everyone.
On Facebook group posts for North Kingstown, Narragansett and South Kingstown – as well as in interviews – The Independent asked others to share what they liked most about their pets.
Tony Scolito and Nikki Munroe own a black and white pitbull named Pete. He wags his tail and gives friendly greetings to all who visit their South Kingstown home.
“My sweet pitbull doesn’t talk bad about anyone, anything, and always is so very happy to see me no matter where I went or how long I’ve been gone,” said Scolito. “He gives me kisses and stays by me when I’m sad or ill. His love is true love, unconditional.”
Byron Cahoon, president of the South Kingstown Dog Park Association, expressed sentiments on behalf of the many dog lovers he knows who visit the park.
“I think dogs have the qualities we love in people – loyalty, love, affection,” said Cahoon, who goes to the park daily with his nearly four-year-old Scottish Terrier, Tillie. “All the things we want in people we get in a dog.”
Then there are the more exotic kinds of pets – those that aren’t usually found on a leash or running free in a dog park.
For instance, Taylor Croteau of Narragansett has two geckos and one corn stake.
“I chose to have reptiles over other animals because it is something you can keep in an enclosure, and as adults they don’t have to be fed every day,” she said. “So it isn’t as time-consuming as a dog or a cat would be.”
“It is also just interesting to get to know a species of animal that you can’t just find around every corner,” said Croteau. “I love how unique each of my pets are and how I am able to hold each of them.”
“They all have different habitat requirements, which gives me three cool enclosures to look at and provide for them,” she said. “I got them each as babies, so I also get to watch them grow up and get the full length of their lives.”
Xan McCartney of Wakefield wrote, “Guinea pigs make wonderful pets. They’re as interactive as cats, and unlike hamsters, they have no interest in escaping. There’s a misconception that they’re good “starter pets” for kids, but they require more care than one might expect.”
Doug Gobeille of West Kingston, said he raises “Giant American Chinchillas primarily for their meat…The more you play with them, the more chill they become with humans. When our does are done with breeding, we either re-home them as pets to others or keep them ourselves because they are like small snuggly dogs.”
Abigail Gencarelli posted that frogs and bearded dragons are her favorites.
“They make great, quiet pets and my beardie is much like a puppy. He likes to snuggle and even plays with toys!” she said.
Meanwhile, Kate Laing posted that her son has a snake and a tarantula.
“As a family, we also have three cats and fish,” Laing wrote. “I always joke when we go to the pet store that it’s feeding time at the reptile house.”
Emily Buterbaugh of North Kingstown said she has a rescued Sulcata tortoise that weighs about 35 pounds and may be about 20 years old.
“They are one of the largest species of tortoise, and he will likely live to be close to or even over 100! He likes to bask in the sun and follow us around in the backyard in the summer,” she said.
Rosey Serabian added, “We had a snake. My daughter loved it. I hated it. We had hamsters, rabbits and mice. They are cute and can be cuddle buddies.”
These kinds of animals, as well as cats, dogs, horses and others, are among the more than 3.2 million pets adopted each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
The pandemic brought increased adoptions during the second half of March 2020, with some estimates showing an adoption rate of 58% at the beginning of the month that zoomed to 85% by the first part of April.
In addition, a small poll of 1,000 dog and cat owners who acquired their pets since last March found that 13% had the new pandemic pet as their only animal, while 66% reported a cat or a dog already living with them.
The survey by Rover.com – an online pet-sitter finder – also found that 53% adopted a dog, while 32% took in a cat and 14% adopted both a dog and a cat.
Of those who gave these animals a home, 26% got them from breeders, while the vast majority (64%) adopted from either a nonprofit or rescue group (40%) or another person (24%).
This would not surprise local animal welfare officials. Most said that in the last 12 months, dogs and cats have been hot commodities no matter where they came from.
“We’re pleased to be able to support families not just in our immediate area, but also in the broader community,” said Animal Rescue RI Board Chairman Doug Rubinstein. “We can focus on our lifesaving work by finding new families for animals needing homes, while simultaneously helping to keep pets and their families together.”
Curran, North Kingstown’s animal control officer, offered one big reason for the COVID adoptions.
“People had more time on their hands and they were looking for someone to talk to since they weren’t going to work,” she said, laughing, but pointing to the seriousness of the need for companionship.
Returning to Work, Activities
As COVID vaccines roll out and more people get them, federal guidance offers that soon more people will be able to get together. That will include returning to work outside the home for some.
As both social gatherings and returns to offices happen, animals accustomed to a year of near-inseparable contact with owners will have adjustments to make, said animal protection advocates.
Veterinarian Schwartz, president of the R.I. Veterinary Medical Association, said now is the time to prepare animals, usually dogs, for that change. It’s called “separation anxiety,” a condition that can similarly affect humans, too, she said.
The ASPCA defines separation anxiety when owners might see dogs urinate, defecate, bark, howl, chew, dig or try to escape after the owner has left the house where both live.
When treating a dog with separation anxiety, the goal is to resolve the dog’s underlying anxiety by teaching the animal to enjoy – or at least tolerate – being left alone, veterinarians said.
Treatment for mild separation anxiety, according to the ASPCA, might involve associating the animal with a chew toy stuffed with food when left alone. It should be enough that at least 20 to 30 minutes are needed to finish eating it.
However, treatment for moderate to severe separation anxiety requires more attention, animal welfare advocates offered.
It’s crucial to gradually accustom a dog to being alone by starting with many short separations that do not produce anxiety, said Schwartz. Gradually increase the duration of the separations over many weeks of daily sessions.
Fear must be avoided or the procedure will backfire and the dog will get more frightened, the ASPCA warned.
Because the scope of treatment depends on the pet’s reactions, which can be difficult to read and interpret, desensitization and counter-conditioning require the guidance of a trained and experienced professional, the animal welfare advocates advise.
“It has to be,” said Schwartz, “a ‘slow and steady’ approach, working back to what it used to be. You don’t want to come home and find the house all chewed up,” she said.