When faced with the isolation, loneliness and boredom brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, thousands of people throughout the East Bay turned to finding four-legged companions to help see them through the dark days of the COVID-19 world.
Driven by a lack of human interaction, interest in pet adoptions has skyrocketed over the past year, according to local pet adoption centers, who say that the meteoric increase in demand has created a significant supply shortage throughout the state.
"We saw a 29% increase in adoptions in 2020, so that's been great and we're still seeing a huge demand, especially for dogs. California is actually dealing with a dog shortage right now," Melanie Sadek, executive director of Valley Humane Society in Pleasanton and vice president of the California Animal Welfare Association (CalAnimals), told the Weekly.
"We can get up to 90 inquiries on one dog. It's really unfortunate because we really try to call every single person back, but really only one person gets to benefit out of those 90 so it can be a lot of heartbreak for those people," Sadek added. "I know our situation is not unique; I know a lot of other groups in our area are having the same issues we are. Someone with the Humane Society in Silicon Valley told me they posted for a puppy and got 400 inquiries."
With the pandemic isolating residents and giving many extra time at their homes, Sadek said many residents currently seeking pet adoptions are first-time owners who either never had the time to care for a pet, or saw adoption as a chance for some much-needed companionship while sheltering in place.
"Especially at the beginning we were receiving hundreds of applications, but typically we wouldn't be seeing hundreds of people coming in a day (before the pandemic began). With the new process, people were able to more easily apply," added Kelcy Spaete, marketing manager for the East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
The East Bay SPCA was forced to close adoption services at its Dublin location due to the pandemic, according to Spaete, but interest has not subsided and adoptions are still available through its Oakland location.
"Right after everything closed last March, we had a huge outreach of people asking how they could help ... In just a short amount of time, I think we had over 200 animals in our care at that time and things were really up in the air. We were able to place every single animal that didn't require medical care into foster homes," Spaete said.
The increased demand has also been met with a new system of adoption that, while more thorough in some ways, has created a platform that is easier for many to navigate. Like most services during the pandemic, the adoption process for pets in the East Bay has mostly gone digital, with an application process more akin to online dating than window shopping.
Whereas prior to the pandemic interested owners could just walk into an adoption center and view the available pets, now locations generally post profiles for their pets online, where interested residents can apply in the hopes of being chosen. Application processes differ from center to center, but suitable applicants are typically screened beforehand and invited to meet an available pet in-person during a scheduled appointment.
The search for animal companionship has led to thousands of pets finding their forever homes, with many families happily taking advantage of the extra time they have to dedicate to a new furry family member.
"We were looking to adopt a dog after we bought a house. Our daughter had been asking for years, and it felt like a good time. But we weren't able to find a dog in a shelter that fit our situation, so we decided to wait until the right dog came along," said resident Mirjam Dijkxhoorn, who adopted a two-year-old Husky named Venus.
"Venus has been such a wonderful addition to our family, she brings so much love into our home! We try to ignore the hair all over the house as much as we can," Dijkxhoorn added.
Nancy Lewis, another happy pandemic dog adopter, said, "We adopted (Polly) during the Pandemic, in June of 2020, as a tiny puppy. The shelter had all sorts of COVID safety protocols in place, so the entire adoption process was virtual, and we did not get to meet her 'in-person' until we actually picked her up to take her home.
"She is such a blessing to our family and has grown into the sweetest dog," said Lewis, who is also the Streetwise contributor for the Weekly.
According to data from three of the area's top nonprofit facilitators of pet adoptions, interest has skyrocketed over the past year and while in many cases overall adoption numbers are up, supply throughout the state has often been unable to meet the growing demand.
In Pleasanton's Valley Humane Society for example, since the pandemic began in force back in March 2020, the group has helped 915 animals find their forever homes -- 549 cats and 366 dogs. That is against its 2019 figures, where it facilitated 708 adoptions (356 cats and 352 dogs).
The Contra Costa Humane Society in Pleasant Hill also saw a growth in physical adoptions, facilitating 403 from March 2020 to March 2021, compared to 348 in all of 2019.
The neighboring East Bay SPCA meanwhile saw a noticeable decline in its adoption figures over the past year despite having an increased volume in inquiries, facilitating 1,462 adoptions -- 970 cats and 492 dogs -- from March 16, 2020 through March 10, 2021, against 3,041 total adoptions in 2019.
While demand has been up for pets across the board at Tri-Valley adoption centers, a trend seen statewide according to Sadek, the demand has created a significant shortage in dogs suitable for adoption.
The shortage has become so severe, according to Sadek, that in many places a sort of black market has emerged where people buy dogs born in puppy farms outside of the state or country.
"(The supply shortage) is where this sort of black market comes from; anytime you have a shortage of resources and an increase in demand, you have an opportunity to capitalize," Sadek said. "Even in Hayward we just had a single gentleman who's sort of a broker, he's getting puppies from a source in Mexico, selling them on Craigslist and when people are getting the dogs they are terribly sick."
Dogs born in such puppy farms have been mistreated in many cases and will typically lack documentation that they have visited the veterinarian and received proper care. Sadek said that any reputable breeder will come with proof that their puppies have visited the veterinarian and families seeking to buy need to be thorough in their research prior to buying.
"Normally a purebred puppy by a reputable breeder can go for $2,000 and now those are going for $5,000, so you can get these purebred dogs and pay a pretty penny for them," Sadek added.
Families interested in fostering pets have increased dramatically over the past year, as families provide the animals with temporary housing until a permanent owner can be found -- providing the family with some companionship in return.
"Our foster network blew up, we had so many people reaching out to foster. We've had way more fosters than we have animals; there was never a shortage of fosters and we've had so many people as far as Sonoma and Napa were applying with us," said Suzanne Cowherd, program manager at Contra Costa Humane Society.
The East Bay SPCA has fostered nearly 1,400 cats and dogs over the pandemic due to residents' increased interest, many have even led to families adopting their fosters.
"That's been a huge area for us we're so grateful to our fosters," Spaete said.
Food insecurity among households has also risen over the past year as families grapple with financial hardships resulting from the pandemic, which has led to some struggling to feed their pets.
For Valley Humane Society alone, the need for a pet food pantry has increased by 400% over the past year alone, according to Sadek, who said the need for their pantry services has never been higher.
"Financial contributions are what's most needed most right now, we are seeing a huge increase in pet food needed for families dealing with food insecurity," she said. "In all my years we've never had to buy food to support the community's needs. This was the first time we had to buy to meet the community's needs."
Pet adoption nonprofits
For more information on adoptions or to donate to a pet food pantry, call or visit:
* Valley Humane Society, Pleasanton, 925-426-8656, www.valleyhumane.org
* East Bay SPCA, Dublin and Oakland, 510-569-0702, www.eastbayspca.org
* Tri-Valley Animal Rescue, Dublin, www.tvar.org
* Contra Costa Humane Society, Pleasant Hill, 925-279-2246, www.cchumane.org.