An unprecedented surge in the number of cats and dogs being surrendered by their owners is creating a capacity crisis at pet rescue facilities across Alberta.
The increase in unwanted pets is putting a strain on shelters, taking a toll on rescue workers and escalating fears that unwanted animals may face neglect.
People on the front lines caution that with capacity strained, some owners are abandoning their pets instead of finding shelters that can take them.
The crisis is unfolding in communities across the province as shelters contend with chronic overcrowding. The trend began as COVID restrictions eased and has continued to escalate alongside the cost of living.
Dan Kobe, a spokesperson for the Alberta SPCA, said the society’s officers have seen a concerning rise in the number of animals discarded by their owners.
“They would like to surrender them but they can’t find a suitable option and and they get desperate and then they leave the animal in position where they hope it will be cared for … But it’s still a dangerous situation for the animal,” Kobe said.
“We don’t want to see people taking that kind of drastic step.”
Shelters across the province are overrun. The demand is driven by an overpopulation of pets, and the increasing cost of caring for animals, he said.
“We’d like people to take the time to surrender animals properly, even though that may take weeks or months,” he said.
“If you’ve taken on care of that animal, it’s now your responsibility to make sure that you moved on to its next home in a safe way.”
Erin Deems, executive director at Saving Grace Animal Rescue Society in Alix, 55 kilometres northeast of Red Deer, said with so many animals being given up, there is no longer space to house them all.
“We are over capacity on any given day,” she said. “And unfortunately, people are just taking desperate measures now by literally dumping them on our doorstep.”
Shelter officials say several factors are driving the trend, which has been seen across Canada. Animal adoptions spiked during the peak of COVID-19 but as restrictions eased, the trend reversed.
Many people who adopted pets while they were isolated under restrictions no longer have time to care for the animals. Backyard breeding operations that proliferated during the pandemic are now clogging the shelter system with unwanted litters.
Amid soaring inflation, the problem has only grown worse. Some people can no longer afford their pets or find pet-friendly homes within budget.
Deems said Saving Grace is struggling to keep up with demand for its services. More than 80 animals are currently in its shelter, and another 200 are in foster homes.
Staff are fielding up to 15 calls a day from people asking to surrender their animals. Most are being turned away.
“We’re doing a triage system,” Deems said. “But we can’t take in anything that’s not in a dire situation because we don’t have the means to care for them. There’s just no space.”
Staff are attempting to prioritize the most vulnerable animals but each new case pushes the society further past capacity and puts more pressure on its limited budget, Deems said.
Edmonton-based Infinite Woofs Animal Rescue stopped accepting surrenders from the public about a year ago due to capacity constraints.
Treasurer Lori White said the rescue gets about 30 calls each day from people looking to surrender their pets.
Infinite Woofs recently took in the sole surviving kitten from a litter of five that had been thrown into a ditch along a highway.
Rescue workers say similar reports are on the rise.
“How does a person get to a point where their only action is to throw a bunch of helpless kittens out of a car?” White asked.
“Did they try to go to rescues? Did they try to get them surrendered somewhere else and were turned away again and again? It’s very difficult.
“It’s a vicious cycle we’re living in right now.”
Amanda Annetts, a program co-ordinator with Edmonton-based Second Chance Animal Rescue Society, said staff are now fielding, on average, 10 requests per day for pet surrenders — a 300 per cent increase from pre-pandemic levels.
“There’s people who call us and are begging us and crying. But the space is just not there.
“We try to say ‘yes’ as much as we possibly can … And when we say ‘no,’ we don’t know where those animals go. It’s really awful.”
The society has more than 500 animals in care at its shelter facility in Morinville, more than double its regular capacity and the most the agency has ever housed.
“The Alberta crisis is so bad right now that every rescue is pleading for help and there’s no end in sight,” Annetts said.
“Even if you increase adoptions, even you get more donations, you’re still going to have the issue of these strays coming in.”
Rescue workers say increased enforcement against backyard breeders and better access to affordable veterinary services — particularly subsidized spay and neuter programs — would help alleviate the pressure.
Annetts said a lack of education is also driving the trend. Too often, pets are seen as disposable.
“Responsible pet ownership is the No. 1 thing that will get rescues out of this situation,” she said.
“People need to be prepared so that they can care for their animal for a lifetime.”