Although the number of animals taken in slowed during the pandemic, the Pima Animal Care Center is again experiencing an overflow of pets this summer that has reached critical levels, officials with the agency said.
While daily intake is typically 20 to 50 animals, this number ranges from 75 to 100 in the summer. As of Friday, PACC had 580 animals in its shelter and 764 in foster care.
The shelter hit critical capacity on June 17, causing volunteers to create a pop-up kennel space in a separate room. Out of the 486 dogs occupying the shelter that day, about 30 were moved into kennel space, according to Nikki Reck, PACC’s public information officer,
“It’s harder on the dogs mentally and their well being and their health,” Reck said. “So we don’t want to do that unless we absolutely have to.”
All 30 dogs were adopted within three days, but PACC is still nearing capacity daily, burdening both its pets and workers.
Reck says three main issues contribute to the abundance of animals in the summer: hoarding cases, a higher intake of stray pets and prime kitten season.
The shelter currently has three separate hoarding cases within its care. Within the last two weeks, the shelter has taken in 40 Chihuahuas, 27 larger mixed-breed dogs and 38 cats.
Reck says since January, the shelter has worked on 15 different hoarding cases with more than 400 animals.
“It’s a tough time of year. Those cases are difficult because most of them start with really good intentions,” she said. “They want to rescue and save these pets, and then if they’re not spayed or neutered, it just gets out of hand very quickly.”
While some animals have been placed with rescue partners, many are sitting in the shelter’s kennels receiving medical care for injuries while volunteers attempt to socialize them in an unfamiliar environment.
The reason hoarding cases become more frequent in the summertime, Reck says, is because the animals’ odor amplifies in the summer heat.
“The smell starts to drift over to the neighbors,” she said. “It has a very distinct smell, whether it’s a cat one or a dog one, there’s a specific type of odor associated with it when there are many animals just sharing a roof.”
Christy Holliger, who has volunteered at PACC for eight years, works with the shelter’s dogs on behavior. She says pets from hoarding cases often experience longer stays in the shelter due to the consequences of the conditions they were kept in.
“These guys haven’t been handled a lot, and they’re terrified of being stuck in the kennel. In the beginning, it’s traumatizing for them when we pick them up and take them out of the kennel because they’re terrified,” she said. “When somebody comes into the shelter, they’re not necessarily looking for a project, they’re not looking for a fearful dog that they have to work with. So it really puts a big burden on us when we get these hoarding cases.”
PACC also becomes inundated with lost pets in the summer.
“We think that people aren’t home as much, they’re going on vacation, they’re in and out,” Reck said. “So the doors are opening more, and the dogs and cats are finding their way out.”
Reck says if a lost pet ends up at the shelter, “you’re not going to get in trouble.” PACC even provides leashes and collars for pet owners retrieving their animals.
“There’s this misconception that people are irresponsible owners if their pet gets out, and that’s really not the case,” she said. “Their pet just got out, they didn’t have a microchip, didn’t have a collar, which some people call irresponsible. I say they might not know better, they might not have access to it.”
But only about 30% of the stray pets that end up at the shelter are returned to their owner. If a pet has a microchip or collar with contact information, the reunification process is simple. Otherwise, the pet is microchipped and vaccinated at the shelter and is put on “stray wait” for three days before it goes up for adoption.
“That’s state law,” Reck said. “We don’t have the space to be able to hang on to them for long periods of time, even if we could expand it. We wish we could.”
The summer heat initiates the peak breeding season for cats, causing PACC to take in more kittens. However, Reck warns, bringing a litter of kittens into the shelter could cause more harm than good.
“People think they’re doing the right thing by bringing us kittens,” she said. “They might not understand that they’re actually causing what they’re trying to prevent, because kittens without their mothers don’t do well.”
Without their mothers, kittens can experience fading kitten syndrome — a set of symptoms that lead to rapidly declining health. The shelter suggests pouring a ring of baking soda around found kittens then waiting 24 hours to see if mom’s paw prints show up. If so, it’s best to leave the cats alone.
The shelter’s nursery is caring for several kittens it has received during the peak reproductive season, but PACC says only kittens clearly in need of help should be brought in.
“We tell people if you really want to help them live, keep them with mom,” Reck said. “If you want to trap mom and babies to bring them here, we can do that. Unless they look really sick — those are good examples of what to bring us.”
But the kitten intake may slow down in future summers. This year, the animal shelter is receiving more than $323,00 from the county to expand its trap, neuter and release community cat program to decrease the number of feral cats and the kittens they produce.
“The goal is to just have our own separate set of people who just do (trap, neuter and release) stuff year round, because it’s an important need in this community,” Reck said. “Community cats are smart, they can survive, but they still need spay and neuter.”
Volunteers are stretched thin
The influx of hoarding cases, strays and newborn kittens has implications on the shelter’s capacity to care for the animals, and ultimately, to get them adopted.
Many volunteers have stayed home throughout the pandemic due to high susceptibility to the virus. While PACC has a dedicated group of volunteers caring for animals, they’re stretched thin.
“The volunteers that were here and have been through COVID, they’re especially rundown right now, because they’ve been with us the whole time. They care so much about these pets, but they’re running themselves ragged.” Reck said. “We are getting more volunteers slowly, which is great. But those volunteers who’ve been through all this, they have more dogs now to walk than they ever did.”
With less staff available to care for an increasing number of animals, the pets’ chances of being adopted become slimmer.
“When we’re overcrowded, every animal gets less of our time, less time out of their kennel,” Holliger said. “There are days when there’s not enough volunteers to walk them all. So some days the dogs won’t get out of their kennel. The less time that we have to spend with them, the quicker they’re going to decline, and the longer they’re here, the more they decline. When people come up to their kennel, they’re not going to be adoptable.”
While the room that once served as makeshift kennel space is now empty, Reck says the situation could arise again.
“If we get another situation where we have three hoarding cases that we’re working at the same time like that, with that many animals, it will happen again,” she said. “But we are committed to saving lives. We do not euthanize for space, and we’re not going to do that.”
Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at firstname.lastname@example.org