Overcrowded animal shelters and overworked shelter workers: What can be done?


The difficulty in obtaining routine veterinary care may have contributed to the surge in pet overpopulation – but since that’s a long-term problem in itself, what can we do about all these dogs and cats right now?

I haven’t been volunteering at my local shelter lately; I’ve had my hands full with work stuff, family stuff, and my own three dogs. But I was running errands the other day with a little bit of time on my hands and decided to stop by and say hello to the director and the head RVT (registered veterinary technician) – the folks I’ve worked with and have known for the longest time, all 16 years I have lived in this town.

When I walked in, I could see that the director was absorbed in conversation with the front counter staff. I took a walk through the adoption kennel while waiting for her to be free. In the month of December, in an effort to get more pets “home for the holidays,” the shelter had waived the cost of all dog and cat adoptions, and I had been happy to see lots of photos of newly adopted pets and their new owners on the shelter’ Facebook page. Given all the photos I had seen, I hoped the adoption kennel would be only lightly populated.

I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Every single one of the 28 kennels contained at least one dog, and several contained two or even three dogs. As I walked along the kennel row, dismayed, another RVT on the staff, whom I’ve known for at least seven or so years, came into the adoption kennel through another door. We greeted each other, and I told her I was just killing time, waiting to say hi to the director. She said she was just taking a momentary break, and she joined me on my walk around the perimeter of the kennels, which are arranged in the center of the room. She gave me details about at least a dozen of the dogs as we walked – some of the hardest-luck cases and some of her favorite wards. There were a lot of sad stories.

dogs in shelter
While some dogs are more comfortable sharing a kennel with another dog, most shelters have numerous dogs who guard their food or a preferred resting place in the kennel, or who redirect aggression on their kennelmates when they get aroused as people walk through the shelter. Those dogs should be housed individually, but when the shelter is full, it becomes more difficult to provide individual kennels.

We did a similar walk around the perimeter of the “isolation” part of the building – a mirror version of the other room, also with 28 kennels. These pens were even more full, with two to three dogs in every kennel but the ones that had large “DANGER” signs on them – indicating dogs who have proven to be dangerously aggressive to other dogs and/or humans.

There was also one pen with a single dog in in who did not have a “danger” sign on his door. He looked to be an elderly Labrador, very thin, with a hind leg that he could not put weight on and which stuck out at a crazy angle. I read his cage card; it indicated he was “seized” – a police case of some kind – and that he was 19 years old. I raised my eyebrows at my friend. “That’s what the owner told police. We think he’s more like 12 years old or so. But we’re not sure what we’ve going to do with him. He is such a sweet boy.”

As we talked about that dog, we walked into a hallway in the office part of the shelter building, and ran into the shelter director. I told her how disappointed I was to see how full the shelter was. She said, “TELL me about it! I waived adoption fees all December, just to try to get some animals out of here. But it feels like for every one that left the building, five more came in!”

My friend the RVT joined our conversation. She had just been on the phone with the police discussing the cruelty and hoarding case that involved the skinny, crippled old Lab. “We had to seize 24 animals the other day, cats and dogs both – and it’s been quite a job, making room for them!” she said. “It’s crowded and stressful here,” she said, “But at least the poor animals will be fed and receive medical care!”

I asked her about the plan for the old Lab. She said, “You know, that’s exactly the kind of dog that we like to splurge on – to spend extra money to make sure he gets the time and medical care he needs to recover and find a happy home for the rest of his life. But it’s very hard to justify the time and money right now, with so many other needy animals. There is an 8-month-old Boxer with a broken leg who needs surgery, too – and we just spent a fortune treating a bunch of parvovirus cases.”

“And in the meantime,” the director added, “I have people coming in screaming at the front counter staff because we can’t take their dogs. We’re not taking any owner-surrendered animals right now; we have no room for them! This lady came in the other day mad because we wouldn’t take her three dogs. She was screaming, ‘This is your job! Why don’t you do your damn job?’ I wanted to tell her, ‘Why don’t you come in the back with me and tell me which dogs I should kill to make room for yours!’ ”

The RVT said, “Even the shelters and rescues that we’ve been working with for years, who take some of our excess animals from time to time – they are maxed out, too. At the moment, we’re hearing, ‘Sorry, we’re full!’ from every group we know.”

I asked my friends, “What do you think is happening? Why so many stray and surrendered animals right now?”

The RVT said, “I think that since COVID started, and so many veterinary practices were either shut down or taking only emergency or reduced caseloads, a lot of animals didn’t get spayed or neutered – and now we’re a couple or a few dog and cat generations into a population boom. We’re just drowning in puppies and kittens – more than ever – and also taking in a lot of 1-year-old dogs and 2-year-old dogs that people say they ‘just can’t keep anymore.’ I think there are a ton of ‘accidental litters’ that have been born over the past couple of years, due to the fact that people haven’t been able to get into a clinic and get their animals sterilized. And each litter of unneutered pups or kittens that are given away tends to create another!”

We didn’t talk for much longer; I didn’t want to keep them from their work. I made a donation – every little bit helps – and told them I’d be thinking about anything I could do to help with the limited amount of time I’ve been finding myself with lately.

Solutions: What can be done?

Being a writer, my go-to is to try to generate some buzz by writing about the plight of shelters everywhere, in an effort to get the word out to the animal-loving community: Please help your local shelters in any way you can! They are struggling under the weight of too much to do, and too little funding (almost always) to do it with. Fostering, donations, asking friends and family for donations – these things help a lot. Also, setting your Amazon account to an AmazonSmile account and choosing your local animal shelter as its charitable beneficiary helps, too. Amazon donates a tiny percentage of your AmazonSmile purchases to the charity of your choice, but if enough people in your community select your local animal shelter as their charitable recipient, it adds up!

While donations can’t add up to an immediate increase in the amount of space a shelter has, it frees up funds for buying food and medicine for treating animals (yes, some shelters have to balance their funds for food against funds for medical treatment). Above all, regular donations give shelters the ability to hire more help. It takes a lot more time to keep kennels clean when they are holding two and three dogs apiece than just one, and this alone translates into better health for the wards.

I wish I lived in a community with a low-cost spay/neuter clinic that I could support; I’d fund-raise for them year-round. I do believe that almost any cost for spay/neuter services is a barrier for many of the people in the relatively low-income community where I live.

On social media, I follow a rescue group in a nearby county – one that focuses on what they call “home to home” adoptions. They try to help people find qualified new homes for pets that people can’t keep (for whatever reason), by providing foster care, training, medical help, and grooming and then screening prospective new owners, so that the dog doesn’t end up in another home that might not work out. This keeps many dogs out of their local shelter – and also out of the arbitrary and often sketchy world of Craigslist rehoming. The fact that it’s a private organization, with no obligation to take on more dogs than they can handle, helps the group maintain financial stability (though I know that emotionally it can be hard to turn away needy dogs when the demand for placement is high).

What works best in your area for helping homeless dogs and overcrowded shelters? Any and all good ideas are welcome; you never know what solution might work perfectly for another shelter.


  1. Please, please volunteer at your local shelter. Get involved with a local, ethical rescue. Foster! Take behavior classes – free ones – so you can easily read signs of a dogs discomfort. Know what stress signals are.

    There are so many items fellow dog stewards can do. I’ve even offered to pay for a training session for struggling community members who have dogs. It might not be much, but it’s a start.

    Most of all – be present. Don’t turn away. Your contribution is important in your community and beyond it.

  2. Yesterday I received an email from Amazon saying that they’re shutting down their “AmazonSmile” program as of Feb. 20th, basically due to lack of interest. Here’s what they say:

    Dear customer,

    In 2013, we launched AmazonSmile to make it easier for customers to support their favorite charities. However, after almost a decade, the program has not grown to create the impact that we had originally hoped. With so many eligible organizations—more than 1 million globally—our ability to have an impact was often spread too thin.

    We are writing to let you know that we plan to wind down AmazonSmile by February 20, 2023. We will continue to pursue and invest in other areas where we’ve seen we can make meaningful change—from building affordable housing to providing access to computer science education for students in underserved communities to using our logistics infrastructure and technology to assist broad communities impacted by natural disasters.

    To help charities that have been a part of the AmazonSmile program with this transition, we will be providing them with a one-time donation equivalent to three months of what they earned in 2022 through the program, and they will also be able to accrue additional donations until the program officially closes in February. Once AmazonSmile closes, charities will still be able to seek support from Amazon customers by creating their own wish lists.

    There’s more, but you get the gist.

  3. Honestly, I see the flood of animals coming up to my own area in the Mid Atlantic from southern states, most of the rescues locally do this. They pull from shelters outside their areas. I’d like to see people from ANY area putting money into these under privileged areas in the South so they stop the flood. These dogs often have lots of anxiety issues, shipping these puppies and passing them out to fosters and adopters sight unseen in parking lots. This also means people are going to these rescues instead of local shelters.

    Some of it is because they don’t want pit bulls. Instead we now have a constant flood of hound type dogs. Not in our shelters but those are a large majority of what I see in my area. These dogs are not necessarily so comfortable in these less rural areas. Think stray from Tennessee placed in a dog friendly condo in DC. The new owners aren’t prepared for that.

    The flow has to stop. We have to stop it in our own more economically challenged areas but if we don’t neuter and spay in the south this flood will not end.

    I volunteer at an open admittance shelter and there is no room. Not to mention the community doesn’t like the open admittance shelter because they are not “no kill” and yet they flood money to the ones that turn the hard animals away and also to these rescues who are “saving” all of these poor dogs from open admittance shelters in other areas when we have dogs here.

    They also are being shipped up to meet a “demand” for puppies.

    • I just adopted a hound type dog from Tennessee yesterday–she is about a year old. My fourth rescue but wow have there been challenges (she refused to pee no matter how long I walked her or how often I took her out–I was actually relieved when she went in the house–I can clean and I can housetrain but her poor bladder!)
      The thing is, I am a pretty experienced dog parent with good references but most local rescues did not seem to want my application. Granted I work and I live in an apt. but I have always had a dog. Took a text from my veterinary oncologist (18 year old cat Dudley has been living with GI lymphoma) to a personal friend of hers to even get my application processed and in the door of a local shelter. I understand it is better for every dog to have a stay at home mom and a huge fenced in yard. (Trust me, I’d love to be a wealthy stay at home parent with a beautiful house and yard!) And I know shelters get pets from people when they move. But my babies have always come with me . . .

    • I’ve noticed this dynamic just to add some flavor:
      In my state, we have only no kill shelters. Most bite history/aggressive dogs languish in shelters or get bounced around on craigslist or rehoming sites to sketchy people. (Even no kill shelters euthanize but they have to keep their numbers VERY low to retain no kill status.)

      Whereas in the south, shelters euthanize quickly. Old? Sick? Pregnant? Bite history? Not cute? Y’all get euthanized. End of story. Most shelters in the south do NOT have capacity for problem pups or extensive behavioral issues – or even the knowledge to recognize them.

      I loathe unethical rescues that just port dogs in from the south to my home state. Especially when our local shelter is packed. But I also have southern dogs that would have just been euthanized for being undesirable aka old.

      My local shelter does a lot of great work, but even they will take dogs from the south from overburdened shelter-partners.

      However I’m very select with the rescues I work with, because we do have some that just pull dogs, adopt out (don’t even check to make sure they’re fixed!) and immediately ghost the adopter or foster when they report aggression.

      I honestly wish there was a law that required owners to spay or neuter. ONE local shelter dog has produced 24 puppies in two years – just because the owner never fixed her.

  4. As someone that runs a non-profit that advocates for animal control dogs in a rural NE Florida town, I can tell you why there are so many dogs. It’s because, with the exception of a small percentage of the community, that the mindset of the residents is that they just don’t care about their dogs. They think of them as personal property-not family members. They let them loose, they don’t believe in spay and neuter-not because they can’t afford it- but because they just don’t give a flip. Never, ever believe in vaccinations much less heartworm preventive. I’d say that 90% of the dogs that come in are heartworm positive. They shoot dogs-a lot. Or abandon them in ditches, fields, or hoard them. Or breed bully breeds in their backyard. I moved to Jacksonville, FL from Connecticut where I was with a rescue that placed thousands of Southern dogs. Now, I live in this state where they don’t care about their dogs. It is a philosophy here-to disregard a dog’s needs. Now, I raise money to provide vet care for the animal control dogs but also to entice a rescue to take them in by offering them $200 to help with vet care. And I would not dare call this animal control a shelter. It’s not. It is outdoor kennels with a roof over the cages and a plywood box for the dog to crawl up into (by a concrete block on its end) to sleep and get out of the weather. This is rampart all over the South. I just don’t get it. And we are all burnt out as it has been worst lately than it usually is.

    • That is exactly it! We have “mindset/mentality about animals” problem in many parts of the country. Spay/neuter programs aren’t going to do anything to change conditions there, because, as you say, many folks don’t consider their dogs to be living beings that need care. I have zero idea how we go about changing this mindset, but I wish we could.

  5. I foster for Boston Terrier Rescue. I got a note yesterday of the most HORRIBLE news- Amazon has decided as of the end of February 2023 to do away with Amazon smile. As a small rescue, those funds from Amazon helped tremendously. We donate to our rescue, have raffles, but in all honesty, so many are coming in, and old ones too with health issues that the owners just don’t want to care for anymore. Some are not adoptable, but still deserve a home. The money to care for them has to come from somewhere. Their claim is that is “it didn’t go over as well as they hoped.” I’m seriously reconsidering my prime membership for that reason.
    Being a nurse too,I understand money is tight. But people will dump their pet claiming that, and then turn around and have more children. I’m sorry. I just don’t understand…. Pets are family too.

  6. As a trainer and shelter volunteer in the NE, I’ve seen much of what was in the article and the comments, all of it on point. I’ve seen the impact of inflation/missing income as it relates to being able to afford a pet both in the increase in shelter surrenders and in the decrease in training clients. If people can’t afford to feed their dogs, they drop vet care next, and training becomes a luxury. This is evidenced when many of the owner-surrendered dogs we get at the shelter are not only in poor health (at least much of that can be corrected with time and money) but we get a lot of dogs that are extremely hard to place due to significant behavioral issues.

    Until I read the article, I didn’t make the logical extension that lack of vet care (for whatever reason) means reduced spaying and neutering and all the negative downstream effects of that. I had seen the other problems of poor vet care like disease, lack of trauma treatment, and malnourishment, but now I can also add a lack of reproductive care to the list.

    Another problem for shelters is the significant number of COVID dogs we are seeing surrendered – dogs that were acquired by people who suddenly had more time at home, or sought companionship due to social isolation, and the like and now either can’t keep them or don’t want them. We have a glut of those dogs coming into shelters now.

    And compounding the crisis further is the phenomenon of “rescue breeders,” i.e. people/groups that are commercially producing puppies for the rescue market. Ten years ago, if our shelter got puppies it was an event. We advertised it, set up special protocols for staff and adopters handling puppies, and had lines of people waiting for us to open. Puppies in the rescue world were a rarity. Now puppies are available all the time from any number of sources – this is not by accident (no pun intended).

    So in addition to the normal supply of unwanted animals, we have this perfect storm of lots of people unable/unwilling to keep their dogs for economic reasons, inadequate resources for spay/neuter programs, pandemic-acquired dogs being dumped, and an industry producing dogs for rescue.

    Solutions? I don’t have much to offer. Maybe try to convince adopters that puppies are only puppies for a few weeks and then they will have an adult dog that is just like the thousands of adult dogs already available. Maybe shelters and rescues can make a pledge to not request or intake puppies. If there was no demand and no retail outlets for “rescue puppies” then maybe the sources would dry up.

    Other solutions – I think the other comments in the thread have covered much or most of what can be done.

    • NE area here – I’ve noticed the same pain points. The further exacerbate the issue is local rescues porting in puppies, having adopters sign “waivers” saying puppies will get spayed/neutered – with zero follow up.

      Since rescue is unregulated, anyone can drive from our state with a van, fill it up with dogs, and come back to adopt them out. Conversely, my local shelter has had to euthanize like never before. Truly, BE is becoming so common place with people surrounding aggressive pups, saying “Our home isn’t good, but I know you can place X dog in a good home! I know there’s a home out there!”

      I mean, sure – but there’s a chronic shortage of hermits with no children, no visitors, and no other dogs, willing to live with a bite risk every day while providing ethical canine care lol.

  7. What needs to happen is there needs to be a freeze on dog/cat breeding for 1-2 years. The supply of animals has way surpassed the demand. There needs to be regulation in place for this. Maybe the government should charge a $10000 breeding fee and that will slow down all the breeders from helping to overpopulate our animal communities. Someone who wants a dog will have a choice of getting one at a shelter for $75-$400 or paying $4-5 grand for their AKC registered pet. Mandatory fixes required for all pets that you do not have a breeding license for.

  8. “Honestly, I see the flood of animals coming up to my own area in the Mid Atlantic from southern states, most of the rescues locally do this. They pull from shelters outside their areas. I’d like to see people from ANY area putting money into these under privileged areas in the South so they stop the flood.”

    “I loathe unethical rescues that just port dogs in from the south to my home state. Especially when our local shelter is packed. But I also have southern dogs that would have just been euthanized for being undesirable aka old. ”

    What arrogant and pompous statements. It has nothing to do with the “South”. It has to do with the current administration’s open border policies. As thousands and thousands of illegals cross the border each day, they bring with them their canines. As soon as they are over the border, they dump them and walk away. Your comments insinuate that people from the South do not care for their animals as well as people in the North. Sounds like something that a liberal commentator on CNN would say.