‘We’re inundated’: Animal shelters overflowing across U.S.

In the lobby of the Inland Valley Humane Society & SPCA shelter in Pomona, Nikole Bresciani gestured toward rows of kennels erected a few months ago to house an influx of stray cats. In another area, pop-up crates for dogs were stacked on wheels.

To Bresciani, the president and chief executive of the shelter, it was more evidence of the flood of animals coming into the facility since the COVID lockdown.

“We’re inundated,” she said of her organization, which provides shelter services for a dozen cities in the region. “We’ve never had kennels in the lobby for cats.”

An overcrowding crisis has gripped animal shelters across the state and nationwide, exacerbated by a shortage of veterinarians, the high cost of pet care and the overwhelming of rescue organizations, which traditionally take on the overflow from shelters and largely rely on volunteers to foster animals in their homes.

The Animal Care Centers of New York City, which runs the city’s public animal shelters, announced in October that it was closed for most dog surrenders because it was too full. Earlier this year, shelters in North Carolina and Texas also temporarily suspended most intakes for similar reasons.

“We are out of space for new arrivals,” the New York City organization said on its website, requesting that people take stray dogs into their homes instead of to a shelter.

A man with a small dog on a leash bends over to pet it as another person reaches into one of many stacked kennels behind him

Bryant Salas, left, gives a dog a break from its stacked kennel at the Inland Valley Humane Society shelter as fellow animal care technician Eric Lopez cleans it out.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Adoptions aren’t keeping up with the number of dogs coming in, leading to higher euthanasia rates, according to Shelter Animals Count, a nonprofit that tracks shelter statistics nationwide. In California, 9% of dogs at government-run or contracted shelters and rescue organizations were put down from January through October last year, and 13% were put down through October of this year, according to the group’s online database. The figures are similar nationally.

“We can’t get the animals out fast enough,” said Cynthia Rigney, board president of the San Gabriel Valley Humane Society, which shelters homeless animals from Temple City, San Gabriel and Duarte. “We are all under the gun. It’s a mess.”

At the seven shelters run by Los Angeles County’s Department of Animal Care and Control, pandemic and “managed intake” protocols that limited dog admissions resulted in fewer dogs in shelter kennels and euthanasias dipping in 2020 and 2021. But those numbers have since increased.

Many clinics considered spaying and neutering animals nonessential during the height of the pandemic and cut back on performing the procedures. Now, shelters say they are seeing more pregnant dogs and more puppies.

Rigney said backyard breeding rose after the pandemic began as well, especially that of larger dogs that require a higher level of maintenance.

“Cute little huskies grow up to be big husky dogs — they need to be trained and walked,” she said, adding that they’re among the dogs that are ending up in shelters. “We’re primarily filled with big dogs.”

To address the overcrowding, the Los Angeles City Council recently moved to halt new permits for dog breeding until the six shelters it operates are down to 75% capacity for three months in a row.

Cats available for adoption in temporary kennels in the lobby of the Inland Valley Humane Society shelter.

Cats available for adoption in temporary kennels in the lobby of the Inland Valley Humane Society shelter. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Two cats available for adoption sit in temporary kennels in the lobby of the Inland Valley Humane Society shelter.

Two cats available for adoption sit in temporary kennels in the lobby of the Inland Valley Humane Society shelter. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. County considered making the same move, but in a recent report, Marcia Mayeda, director of the county Department of Animal Care and Control, advised against it, saying litters from breeders are not driving shelter intakes. Mayeda said that in the last decade, the department had issued at most two breeding licenses annually. Meanwhile, the city of L.A. issued 2,152 licenses to breed dogs just last year.

The city of L.A. has set a goal of saving at least 90% of impounded animals. It has met the benchmark for dogs in recent years, but not for cats, according to statistics posted on its website.

Its approach, however, has critics who argue that keeping animals alive but locked in kennels in overcrowded conditions is inhumane, and worse than euthanizing them peacefully.

In contrast, at the seven shelters run by L.A. County Animal Care and Control, the number of dogs put down almost doubled between 2020 and 2022, surpassing pre-pandemic levels even though there were fewer intakes last year than before the pandemic.

Mayeda said that her department is doing a better job of offering resources to help owners keep their pets, and that the animals coming in now are more likely to have medical or behavioral issues.

“The percentage of the animals that are coming in with problems is higher,” Mayeda said. “It’s more likely that they could be euthanized — for very legitimate reasons.”

But records show that more dogs are being put down across the county shelter system because there is limited space and not enough interest by adopters, especially at the Palmdale and Lancaster shelters, where euthanasia rates are the highest.

To address overcrowding, staff at the Inland Valley Humane Society have offered incentives for adopters and fosters, including waiving adoption fees, hosting evening adoption events and even offering $200 gift cards to convince people to foster animals.

“We’re constantly feeling like we have to be so creative,” said MaryAna DeLosSantos, the organization’s director of operations. “This is uncharted territory.”