The COVID-19 Pet Adoption Boom: Has It Really Happened?

When we look at the transactional data from the leading source of pet adoption, animal shelters, the adoption ‘boom’ in a pandemic may not be as big as the media coverage on it. suggests. In fact, the total number of pets adopted from shelters in 2020 was the lowest number in 5 years, according to data from 4,000+ shelters nationwide.

A glance at the data

According to data from Best Friends Animal Society and 24PetWatch shelters, around 20% fewer pets were adopted in 2020 than in 2019.1.2 (See table.)

The reason for this decrease is that a smaller pool of animals was available. Shelters recorded 32% less consumption of dogs and 23% less consumption of cats. Fewer people have abandoned their pets and animal control has been less active in picking up stray animals. At the same time, successful sterilization / sterilization programs have helped reduce populations. In addition, the share of animals in shelters placed with foster families has more than doubled, from 22% in April 2019 to more than 46% in April 2020.

It also took longer to adopt a pet during the pandemic. Switching to virtual adoption appointments first and later to a limited schedule of physical visits meant shelters could handle fewer potential adopters. As a result, nearly 450,000 fewer animals were adopted in 2020 compared to 2019. Adoption rate—Or the percentage of available animals adopted — was increasing, but the actual number declined significantly.

While shelters aren’t the only source of new pet adoption, they are the primary source.3 Data on the acquisition of pets from non-shelter sources is difficult to obtain and in some cases non-existent. Yet the data that are Available indicate that there may not have been as dramatic an increase in the number of pets adopted from shelters during the pandemic as some thought.

Getting the facts straight

When examining the reports explaining the pandemic outbreak of pet adoptions, the sources are mostly surveys and anecdotes, both of which are based on personal accounts. Transactional data suggests a different story. While some shelters may have observed an increase in the number of individual adoptions and veterinary practices have seen an increase in visits from new pet owners in 2020, nationally there does not appear to have been any dramatic increase in pet adoptions.

An underlying problem is the different types of data available. Surveys, while an extremely useful tool for collecting data and understanding trends, are not exhaustive. They can be used as one piece of the puzzle to try to understand the overall situation of pet owners and the experiences of our veterinary teams. But taken in isolation, they rarely tell the whole story as they rely on individuals to answer without error or bias. Other sources of information, including hard data based on actual transactions, help provide a clearer and more complete picture.

Business versus occupation

While there may not have been a boom in pet adoptions, our teams feel overwhelmed and overworked. The truth is that veterinary practices are busier than ever. Nationally, the average number of appointments made with veterinary surgeries increased 4.5% from 2019 to 2020, according to data from VetSuccess. Appointments increased 6.5% for the 6-month period January to June 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.3

These figures show healthy and encouraging growth, but they are not the only reason for the sense of occupation we are experiencing. While more business creates more activity, other factors related to the pandemic and the economy appear to be contributing significantly to our current reality.

One of the main factors is the decline in productivity. According to data from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Census of Veterinarians and Veterinary Practice Owners, vets saw fewer patients per hour in 2020 than in 2019, and average productivity has declined by almost 25%.4

COVID-19 has created a myriad of practice challenges, and many clinics are still grappling with the resulting changes. At the start of the pandemic, we saw a significant delay in wellness visits as practices prioritized urgent cases. At the same time, clients were spending more time at home with their pets, allowing them to quickly spot potential health issues and think about veterinary care in general. Some clients also had higher disposable income for pet care, thanks to stimulus payments and reduced spending in other areas.

Meanwhile, the practices were implementing new security protocols. These helped ensure the continued delivery of quality patient care, but also limited the efficiency and productivity of the team.

When we look at this drop in productivity, as well as the increase in appointments, we better understand the source of the current activity of our teams. Many practices are still catching up with patients who have not been seen for over a year, and our teams are still not working at peak productivity due to the lingering effects of COVID-19. Increased workloads and lower efficiency create backlogs and intensify the stress and turmoil that many experience.

Growth in 2021: temporary or permanent?

While there have been more vet visits in 2021 to date compared to last year, we don’t yet know if the increases are permanent. Temporary and cyclical economic factors can still influence demand. The backlog created by the pandemic, for example, will take time to resolve.

The post-pandemic economic recovery will not be a smooth process. Markets and consumer reactions are expected to remain volatile for at least the next few months. This means that we cannot expect today’s trading conditions to continue next year or even later this year.

Hiring more people may seem like a quick fix, but doing so could be short-sighted. Because we don’t know if demand will stay at current levels, it makes sense to focus on other solutions first; improving team productivity, employee engagement and employee retention are much more effective approaches.

Planning for the future

There is a caveat here as we plan for the future and think about how to grow our business: Business strategy should be based on data, not just stories. Where possible, leverage data from multiple sources that reflects what people actually do and what your practice is experiencing.

Reports of an increase in the number of pet adoptions, coupled with the stress we might be feeling right now, could lead us to make responsive business decisions that are not in our best interests. We do not yet know if there is a long term increase in veterinary demand. What we do know is that productivity suffered during COVID-19. Let’s look for ways to improve productivity and make the most of the resources at our disposal.

Here’s an example: Before hiring new staff, let’s first make sure that we are utilizing our existing team members to their full capacity, especially veterinary technicians. This means familiarizing ourselves with the tasks that veterinary technicians are legally permitted to perform in our state and identifying opportunities to use their skills further. When we make full use of the capabilities of our technicians, we free up vets for more of the work that uses their advanced veterinary medical training, and the entire practice runs more efficiently.

Matthew Salois, PhD, is director of the economics division of AVMA.

Gail Golab, DVM, PhD, MANZCVS, DACAW is the Deputy Director of Communications of AVMA.

The references

  1. 24PetWatch. 24Pet ShelterWatch report. Accessed July 23, 2021. https://www.24petwatch.com/shelterwatch
  2. Personal communication and data from Vicki Kilmer, Director of Business Intelligence and Strategy, Best Friends Animal Society; June 2, 2021.
  3. Personal communication and data file. Paul Draper, Data Analyst, VetSuccess, July 2021.
  4. U.S. Pet Market Outlook, 2021-2022. Packaged fact report. March 2021.


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