Experts urge action to end homeless pet problem

11/18/2021 to 12/18/2021

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By Sarah Turnbull
The Tube City Almanac
January 31, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Area News

social distancing. vaccination mandates. quarantines. distance learning Overcrowding of the shelter. What do all these things have in common? They are all by-products of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Animal overpopulation and therefore overcrowding in animal shelters has always been a problem. But the last two years have been particularly challenging.

Tara Czekaj is the executive director of the 18th congressional district of the Humane Society of the United States. She says the pandemic has created the perfect storm for pet overpopulation and animal shelter overcrowding.

“It’s a topic that has been worked on for two years. Homeless animal populations and overcrowding in shelters were a problem before COVID — but COVID has exacerbated absolutely everything,” Czekaj says.

Czekaj cites staff retention, a lack of volunteers and donations, and a general lack of resources as the main reasons behind the explosion in homeless animal populations.

“Because spay/neuter surgeries were suspended during the Part I pandemic, rescuers and TNVR (trap-neuter-vaccinate-return) volunteers saw litter explosions. Most non-lifesaving pet surgeries have been suspended during the Part I pandemic to help stem the spread of COVID, but also because many veterinary hospitals have had to surrender their PPE and ventilators to human hospitals…some animal shelters are on the verge of having to keep pets in staff toilets.”

Amanda Coats is a TNVR volunteer who has been rescuing dogs and cats for 20 years. She predicted the March 2020 lockdown would have disastrous consequences for both communities and animals.

“I warned rescuers in March 2020 to expect an influx of kittens to be rescued during the pandemic. The population is completely out of control,” says Coats.

By his own estimate, Coats catches 300 cats a year. But there are probably tens of thousands of homeless cats in the Mont Valley, if not more. “[The number of stray cats] has increased by at least 25 percent since the pandemic. Returns are up 15 percent.” Cats also present unique challenges for rescuers, Coats says.

“Cats are hard to catch…they hide well,” says Coats. “They can have up to four litters a year, and those litters can have anywhere from two to seven kittens. If you don’t fix the female cat, you’ll see 20 next year.”

There are numerous health benefits of getting a cat fixed, says Emilie St. Landau, veterinary technician at White Oak Animal Safe Haven.

“Neutering a female cat significantly reduces the risk of ovarian cancer and ovarian cysts. It also prevents them from getting into heat and the behavioral changes that come with it. Neutering male cats makes them easier to keep indoors and prevents them from spraying or becoming territorial.”

St. Landau says cat overpopulation is so widespread because cats are induced ovulators — which means they can get pregnant at any time of the year.

“Cats can have offspring at any time, dogs only once or twice a year,” says St. Landau. “There are also a lot more regulations for dogs.”

Now that shops have reopened, there are signs of progress. This spring, Coats will be training staff at the White Oak Animal Safe Haven in communal cat care. The reopening of veterinary clinics will allow more owners to have their pets spayed or neutered. But challenges remain.

“Vet clinics are behind schedule. Many people gave up their pets when they personally went back to work. Abandonment/dumping is on the rise. Cat grooming isn’t really regulated, not like dog grooming,” says Czekaj.

The White Oak County passed an ordinance in 2021 making it unlawful to feed or hold feral cats if they are a nuisance to neighbors. Similar laws were introduced in Export, Port Vue, Penn Hills and Verona.

“Even if you’re not an animal lover, if we can’t fix this, it will eventually affect you,” says Czekaj. “Community cat colonies will explode. Look at Houston, Texas – there are packs of stray dogs roaming the streets.”

How can the public help solve this problem?

“We need carers, volunteers and donors. donate food or money. If you don’t have a caregiver, volunteer,” says Czekaj.

Coats agrees. “The only humane solution is TNVR programs. Learn to set traps, feed a colony, build shelters, volunteer, nurture… take part in anything TNVR-related. And fix your pets!”

To learn more about helping homeless animals, call Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh at 412-345-7300 or visit them online.


Sarah Turnbull is a freelance writer based in Irwin. She can be reached at [email protected]

Originally published January 31, 2022.

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