First it was Purell. Then it was toilet paper. And now, it’s dogs and cats. That’s right; people are clamoring to adopt or foster pets while sheltering at home.
Once talk of social distancing began, the Humane Society of Westchester in New Rochelle saw pet foster care applications jump from roughly three a week to nearly 40 a week, according to Dana Rocco, shelter manager and certified dog trainer. The shelter has also seen an uptick in adoption applications but not as many as those for foster care. “A lot of people are working from home, so they have the time to devote to fostering a pet,” said Rocco.
The shelter is currently closed to the public, including all volunteers. “We so very miss our volunteers; that was the hardest part,” Rocco said. Adoptions are now being done by appointment only, three times a day, in a large room that allows for ample social distancing between potential adopters and the Humane Society staff. Additionally, the room is being thoroughly disinfected between each visit, said Rocco.
Pet Rescue, located in Harrison, is watching a similar story unfold.
“So many people in our community have reached out to help with fostering and adopting,” Pet Rescue’s social media coordinator, Barbara Gebala, wrote in an email on April 16. “It’s just incredible,” Gebala said, adding that the shelter’s foster care applications have increased tenfold and they are on track to do three times the usual number of adoptions.
“Fostering is temporary and if someone has the time, it is a win-win situation,” said Gebala. “The dog or cat enjoys life outside of a kennel and learns what it is like to live in a home — and the human enjoys a fun and immensely rewarding experience, knowing they gave a homeless pet a temporary home.”
Pet Rescue’s headquarters is closed to the public but adoptions are continuing by appointment only, “using every safety precaution,” Gebala said. The shelter is not actively rescuing any animals due to the health risks COVID-19 would pose to all those involved.
This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported two pet cats in New York State tested positive for the coronavirus, and the Bronx Zoo has reported some tigers and lions were infected. Still, the CDC, the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and many other health experts and health/animal organizations agree there’s no evidence that animals transmit the virus to humans and the very small number of felines in the world that have been infected mostly have had very mild symptoms.
If someone’s pet does become sick with COVID-19, the CDC recommends trying to distance oneself from that pet, or wearing a face covering when caring for the pet. Other than that, no steps or special precautions need to be taken right now.
Additionally, the CDC said, “There is no reason to think that any animals, including shelter pets, play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19” and “Although we know certain bacteria and fungi can be carried on fur and hair, there is no evidence that viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19, can spread to people from the skin, fur, or hair of pets.”
Meanwhile, Gimme Shelter Animal Rescue on Long Island, S.N.A.R.R Animal Rescue Northeast in Brewster, A New Chance Animal Rescue in Bedford Hills, and Happy Life Animal Rescue in Patterson, New York, are also seeing an influx of adoption and foster applications.
“We are being inundated with applications, messages and email inquiries and doing our best to get back to everyone as quickly as possible while continuing to save dogs!” Gimme Shelter Animal Rescue wrote on Facebook April 3.
It’s clear that many Westchester residents are showing up for vulnerable cats and dogs and, in return, those animals are showing up for them.
“Pets are so important in our lives, especially right now,” said Gebala. “They provide companionship, unconditional love and keep us grounded. They reduce stress, relieve anxiety — and dogs give us a reason to get outside and exercise.”
Carrie Moskowitz, a longtime Fox Meadow resident and professional dog trainer, said her recently rescued dog, Odo, is keeping her sane. “He is such a calming influence in this very unsettled time … he's just fabulous.” In addition to giving private training lessons through her business, TheSmarterDog, Moskowitz has worked as a volunteer trainer at the Humane Society of Westchester for 15 years.
Like Moskowitz, Edgewood residents Melissa and Roshan Jhunja are very grateful for their newly adopted pup, Weston, whom they took home on April 11 thanks to Last Chance Animal Rescue (LCAR). LCAR is a nonprofit rescue organization based in South Carolina — with an office and partners in and around Long Island — that rescues animals trapped on death row in “kill” facilities.
The Jhunjas, who have two young children, said that 2-year-old Weston is providing the family with a lot of distraction. “This dog is galloping all over the house, sometimes he's got a sneaker in his mouth and he's on the furniture … the truth is that it gives us something else to focus our time and attention on,” said Roshan.
Even individuals who don’t have the physical ability to chase after a 50-pound sneaker thief can still benefit greatly from having a pet in their lives.
Rena Schwartzbaum, a licensed psychologist in Scarsdale who runs a volunteer cat socialization program at the Humane Society of Westchester, said that cats, in particular, make especially great companions for older people. “My favorite matches are a senior with a senior cat, which is a win-win situation,” she said, explaining that older pets are often less adoptable.
However, Schwartzbaum stressed that older adults need to make sure to designate a backup person to look after their pet, should they no longer be able to care for it. “It’s very, very sad, but we sometimes get very loved animals, and brokenhearted owners who have to move into a nursing home or assisted living, and a cat or a dog who’s been lovingly cared for for many years suddenly finds himself in a shelter.”
Schwartzbaum underscored that all people, regardless of age, “have to understand that [adopting a pet] is not just a COVID commitment. This is a decades-long commitment and they really have to think that through.” If residents aren’t ready to make such a commitment, they should consider fostering a pet instead, Schwartzbaum said.
Luckily, most shelters in the area use rigorous screening to minimize the number of adopted pets that end up being abandoned, neglected, or surrendered back to the shelter. And in light of the current pandemic, most shelters are taking extra care to ensure that potential adopters will be able to care for their pets appropriately once they return to work or school.
At the Humane Society of Westchester, applicants must complete a comprehensive online questionnaire and a phone interview. (Normally, full interviews would be conducted in person.) Rocco said the interviews are so thorough that by the time potential adopters arrive in person, many are often coming in to see a specific dog or cat.
Paul Curtis, NY Pet Rescue board member, said in an email that “rarely is an animal returned to us because of any ‘surprise’ factors that occurred post-adoption mainly because we do a good job of making sure a family is ready for ‘all’ the commitments that go along with dog/cat/puppy/kitten ownership.”
Puppies and kittens, in particular, require a tremendous amount of care and attention. According to Moskowitz, it’s crucial to start training puppies very early on “or you miss a really important developmental stage.” Moskowitz also cautions new pet parents against relying solely on books or online training resources. “No book replaces a good ‘live’ trainer any more than a driving manual replaces a driving instructor with a car!” she said in an email.
Socializing puppies is especially crucial. But how can you socialize a puppy while social distancing?
NY Pet Rescue suggests “introducing [the puppy] to as many new objects, experiences, sights, sounds and smells as possible,” said Gebala. “For example, run the vacuum, clip their nails and teach them to ‘sit.’ If they’ve had all their puppy shots, take them for a car ride and walks so they can experience the world; walk alongside other dogs at a safe 6-foot distance.”
If a puppy has not gotten his or her shots yet, “you can always hold the puppy in your arms,” said Moskowitz, “which means you can sit outside … and listen to traffic ... look at the little kids going by…”
If puppy socialization and general dog training sound overwhelming, rest assured that Moskowitz, along with many other trainers, is now offering remote training sessions.
“Working remotely with clients means that I have to be very precise when I give them instructions. I can’t be sloppy … ultimately it helps me to be a better trainer, which benefits my clients,” said Moskowitz, who uses a stuffed dog to help her clients visualize the mechanics of certain maneuvers.
To support local animal shelters and rescue organizations during this pandemic (and after), follow them on social media and consider adopting or fostering a pet, donating money, and/or donating supplies. The shelters urge people to consider adopting or fostering a senior pet in particular, as many of them continue to be overlooked.
Rx for pets
Veterinarians are working to help new and seasoned pet owners during the pandemic — they are considered essential workers.
Dr. Gina Antiaris, veterinarian and Pet Rescue board member, said in an email: “Our hospitals are open for sick and emergencies. The only exception to this is for puppies and kittens who need to stay on their schedule for vaccinations. I see a fair amount of puppies and kittens nowadays, which is a welcome distraction from all the sick ones I have been seeing.”
Many vet clinics, like Central Animal Hospital in Scarsdale, are providing curbside concierge services. Typically, clients are asked to call the vet when they arrive in the parking lot and to wait in their car. An assistant then brings the patient into the hospital and the doctor performs the exam while consulting with the client by phone.