Spokane area shelters are over capacity with animals and need more residents to foster, adopt, donate or volunteer

click to enlarge Spokane area shelters are over capacity with animals and need more residents to foster, adopt, donate or volunteer
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Local animal rescue operators like Jamie McAtee of Rescue4All are being pushed to their limits by the current rise of pet surrenders.

On Saturday night, July 23, a pair of abandoned newborn kittens were found near Deaconess Hospital. The discoverers weren't sure what to do, so they brought them into the hospital's emergency room. Confused but compassionate, the ER reception staff contacted the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service, or SCRAPS, to come get the kittens. But SCRAPS couldn't come.

SCRAPS is responsible for stray intakes in Spokane County but has been filled to capacity since the beginning of July.

So instead, with the help of Murci's Mission, a local nonprofit that specializes in rehabilitating and rehousing high-need animals, the ER staff connected with a foster family who were willing to take the kittens home.

Many shelters around Spokane are experiencing a significant increase in animals needing their care. Shelters in denser urban areas are seeing more pet surrenders, possibly due to rising living expenses that compete with an owner's ability to pay for a pet, or landlords not allowing animals or requiring expensive deposits.

Owners are also not consistently accessing spaying, neutering and vaccine services, maybe because of vet unavailability or cost. Spokane has a citywide no-kill policy, meaning that shelters cannot euthanize animals just because there is no kennel or cage for them. As more and more animals compete for space and vet care, however, the animal welfare system needs more support from the community to care for vulnerable animals.

Katie Schmidlkofer operates Murci's Mission and has tried to help SCRAPS place animals as it struggles with capacity. For her, the most notable intake increase is the number of dogs from 1 to 4 years old, presumably brought home during the pandemic.

"A lot of people who wouldn't have otherwise gotten a dog went ahead and did it," Schmidlkofer says.

About 23 million American families added a dog or cat between March 2020 and May 2021, according to data from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In May 2021, about 90 percent of dogs and 85 percent of cats were still in those homes. But a third of pet owners were already concerned about their financial security. As costs of living continue to increase, the expense of owning an animal can become less feasible.

"Apartments cost a lot more if you have pets," says Kevin Squires, hospital manager at Pet Emergency Clinic in Spokane.

Pet fees and rent increases also affect an owner's financial flexibility. "If rent is $500 more a month," Squires posits, "can you afford dog food? Can you afford vet bills?"

Not only are veterinarians often expensive, but they are increasingly booked up. Routine operations and vaccine appointments that previously could be scheduled within days now have to be scheduled at least a month in advance, according to Schmidlkofer.

"If rent is $500 more a month, can you afford dog food? Can you afford vet bills?"

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The recent nationwide increase in pet ownership also coincided with veterinarian burnout and shortage, according to Squires. The Pet Emergency Clinic is "outrageously busy every day," he says, partly because they can't refer owners back to nonemergency vet care. Local vets don't have enough appointments, leaving the clinic to do non-urgent work like taking out stitches or after-wound care.

Squires says the clinic is also seeing an uptick in canine parvovirus, or "parvo," cases, a contagious virus that spreads quickly from dog to dog. Puppies should receive a parvo vaccination between 14 and 16 weeks old and be kept up to date as adults. But some dogs are not being vaccinated in time, possibly due to lack of owner education, ability to pay or vet availability. Squires says most of the pets the clinic sees now aren't up to date on their vaccinations.

Jamie McAtee runs Rescue4All, a nonprofit that typically rehomes higher need dogs. This summer she's getting five to 10 calls a day from people trying to surrender their pets. McAtee is exhausted by the number of people who have not fixed and vaccinated their dogs or trained them in basic skills.

"Everyone is making it out to be a housing issue, but that's not what I'm seeing," McAtee says. She sees the "horrific overpopulation" of dogs in the area as a direct result of human irresponsibility. She blames owners who were not prepared for the responsibility they took on when they chose to get a dog.

"We all know that there are going to be hiccups in our lives," McAtee says. "If you gave a shit about that animal, you would have a plan for them if things go awry."

There are exceptions in extreme cases, she says, but that is not how she would describe most of the surrenders she sees.

Better Together is a nonprofit in Sandpoint, Idaho, that focuses on keeping animals with their owners or at least out of kennels and cages. In 2016, Mandy Evans founded its Home to Home program. In this system, the shelter acts as a liaison instead of a kennel, connecting an owner who needs to rehome their pet directly with a potential adopter, all without forcing the animal to stay at the shelter itself.

"My personal mission," Evans says, "is that shelters act more like community resource centers."

In Evans' experience, people needing to rehome their pets are very apologetic and don't want to have to give up their animals. Better Together first tries to provide alternatives to surrendering pets. But if relocation is necessary, Home to Home empowers the surrenderer to find a good new home for their furry friend.

Home to Home partners with over 100 shelters in North America. Owners can go through the site directly without shelter oversight, too. In 2021, North Idaho alone rehomed 667 pets through Home to Home. The program served over 7,600 pets across North America that same year.

SCRAPS and SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. both partner with Home to Home. The program frees SpokAnimal to serve animals who need specialized attention or medical care, according to Randi Oien, SpokAnimal's director of customer relations. In addition to Home to Home, SpokAnimal relies on foster parents to care for and socialize pets while they wait for adoption. This avoids the stress and physical toll on animals staying at a shelter.

"Foster homes really are the key to help us help more animals," Oien says.

SpokAnimal is currently sheltering 535 pets, almost 70 more than at the same time a year ago. The organization has over 200 more animals in need of foster care now compared to last year.

Local animal lover Daniella Martin has been fostering kittens for over a decade. She says it's the best way for animals to be taken care of and socialized before they're adoptable. And it's a lot easier than many families realize.

"Most people think they don't have space for it, and people don't realize that it will be no cost to them," Martin says. The shelter provides all the supplies, and three or four kittens don't take up much space.

"It's an amazing way to volunteer and help the community that doesn't require too much on your part," Martin says. "If you love animals, it's so worth it." ♦

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Eliza Billingham

Eliza Billingham is a staff writer covering food, from restaurants and cooking to legislation, agriculture and climate. She joined the Inlander in 2023 after completing a master's degree in journalism from Boston University.