Pandemic pets put pressure on rescue groups and vets

"There are a ton of people who want to adopt dogs. We really had to show that we were the ones."

Joanne Laucius, Ottawa Citizen 6 minute read July 26, 2021

Heather Badenoch was not expecting to have such a hard time acquiring a rescue dog.

Badenoch and her husband, Paul Gratton, are veteran pet parents with connections in the pet rescue scene. They have no children or other pets. Heather, who has fostered dogs since 1998, works from their west-end home, which has a fenced yard.

“In the past, if we wanted to adopt, we just had to apply,” Badenoch said. “Now it’s competitive.”

The couple’s previous dog, Abbey, died early in the pandemic. They kept a vigilant eye on the social media feeds of rescue groups and applied twice to meet available dogs. They were not chosen.

Badenoch and Gratton decided they needed a strategy. They pre-applied with reference checks to get pre-approved at three different rescue organizations — one in the Niagara region — in the hope it would increase their chances.

“There are a ton of people who want to adopt dogs. We really had to show that we were the ones,” Badenoch said.

Mike Gatta, administration director at Ottawa Dog Rescue, says there has been a “definite uptick” in applications to adopt dogs. Often, would-be pet adopters apply for eight or more dogs before they are matched. Adoptive families pay between $300 and $600, and the dogs have been neutered and vaccinated.

“Before the pandemic, we would get between 20 to 50 applications for a dog, more for a popular breed. If it was a goldendoodle puppy, we would get over 100,” he said.

Now, the volunteer organization is seeing as many as 90 applications for every dog up for adoption. It jumps to 400 applications for a coveted goldendoodle puppy.

“We try to find the best match. We don’t do first come, first served,” Gatta said.

David Harding, founder of Ottawa’s Freedom Dog Rescue, said on average the volunteer organization adopts out about a dog a day. Many come from the north or kill shelters.

Requests to adopt have tripled since the pandemic began, he said. It’s not unusual to get 200 applications for a dog, although Harding notes that the pace has slowed in recent months, perhaps as people return to work.

“There’s incredible demand out there. Our concern is that it’s a blip. We want to make sure people are in it for the long haul.”

Adopting families pay about $500 for an adult dog and $600 for a puppy, including immunizations and neutering. Puppies are particularly popular. “People see them as a fresh start. Some adult dogs bring a bit of baggage with them,” Harding said.

The pandemic has produced some Freakonomics-worthy tales around the supply and demand for dogs as people search for unconditional love with a wagging tail.

In June 2020, approximately 500 crated French bulldog puppies were found in a Ukrainian International Airlines plane after it arrived in Toronto. Many of the puppies were seriously ill and 38 were dead.

Last December, police laid fraud charges against an 18-year-old woman after several people in Ottawa reported that they had tried to buy a puppy online, but their deposits were not returned and they did not get the puppy.

“People are so desperate, they’re ignoring all the signals — like a guy who wants to meet you in a parking lot,” Gatta said.

Some of Ottawa Dog Rescue’s pooches come from the Caribbean and Texas, where cities are overrun with strays and there are kill shelters. The organization recently had two shipments of dogs from Texas, brought on a modified bus, a trip that took about four days, Gatta said.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to bring rescued dogs to Canada from other countries because of border and quarantine restrictions, he said. At the same time, rescue organizations, which depend on donations and volunteers, have limitations.

‘We’re not importing dogs because there are shortages. It’s not about meeting demand. It’s about a global issue. There are more than enough dogs in the world to go around. The problem is getting them here.”


The pandemic pets trend has also underlined an already-simmering shortage of veterinarians.

On a Friday earlier in July, Lisa Bussell was searching for emergency care for her cat, Shadow, who has a chronic respiratory problem. Shadow was despondent and refusing to eat or drink. Bussell feared her cat would not make it through the weekend.

Shadow’s regular vets — he has two  — were fully booked for two weeks. Bussell called more than 20 more vets in the Ottawa area and could find no emergency openings.

“It was at that point that I realized something was going on,” she said. “There was a pattern. This was supply and demand. Obviously, vets can’t keep up with demand.”

Bussell called the 24th clinic. She opened with: “I know you’re fully booked. I’m begging you.”

The clinic asked her to bring Shadow to the clinic for the day and a vet would try to see him in between other appointments. Shadow returned home with two antibiotics, a hydration pack and an appetite stimulant, Bussell said.

“You have to have a take-it-for-granted attitude that the system for humans will come through,” she said. “I had a naive view of the system for animal care.”

The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association has monitored its Help Wanted advertisements since 1997. Before 2015, there was an average of 62 ads in the bimonthly assessment. In 2016, there was a 47 per cent increase. Demand continued to rise. So far this year, it’s more than 300 per cent over the pre-2015 average. Some ads run regularly, showing that some clinics simply can’t recruit veterinarians.

“Veterinary medicine is facing an extraordinary challenge that predates the pandemic,” association CEO John Stevens said.

Among the reasons for the shortage: Baby boomer vets are retiring and the supply of fresh graduates has not kept pace. The Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph graduates 125 new vets annually, and that number has not increased in years, Stevens said.

There is also increasing concern in vet circles about burnout and depression, which has been reported in both Canada and the United States. More than one-quarter of Canadian veterinarians reported suicidal thoughts in the previous 12 months, according to Ontario Veterinary College research published in 2020.

Dr. Danny Joffe, vice-president of medical operations at the VCA Canada, a network of animal hospitals, says there are three reasons behind the long wait to see vets.  First, COVID protocols to keep people safe mean every visit takes longer. Second, people have adopted pets during the pandemic, so there is a greater volume. Third, there’s an acute shortage of emergency veterinarians.

“We’re slowed down by 30 to 40 per cent just by the protocols,” Joffe said.

Besides a push to increase spaces in Canada’s five veterinary colleges, solutions include increasing telemedicine and tapping into the skills of registered veterinary technicians, Stevens said.

The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association has issued a callout to retired vets to step in, and plans to issue another. VCA Canada is working on an intensive three-month emergency veterinary mentorship program.

“The pandemic didn’t create these challenges. They have been exacerbated during the pandemic. We have all seen the trend of pandemic pets,” Stevens said.

Badenoch and Gratton’s search for a rescue dog ended happily. A friend alerted them about Mini, a dog from Iqaluit who was up for adoption with Freedom Dog Rescue.

The Saint Bernard was 30 pounds underweight and had been chained outside. She had been attacked by huskies, which has led to anxiety around other dogs. Badenoch and Gratton were one of three households selected to meet Mini.

She was worth the wait, Badenoch said. While still hesitant around other dogs, Mini’s friendly with children. While Badenoch works from her home office, Mini occupies a custom-made “den” under the desk.

“She’s the sweetest,” Badenoch said. “She’s 160 pounds of snuggle and love.”