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While pet shelters struggle with overcrowding, Hillsborough County is finding solutions

dog sits behind fence at the shelter
Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center
Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center officials said their euthanizations are trending down even as intake numbers climb.

Overcapacity at pet shelters across the U.S. are leading to spikes in euthanasia rates, but Hillsborough County's Pet Resource Center says their existing practices are helping them stay ahead of the surge.

Animal shelters across the country are grappling with overcrowding and higher rates of euthanasia, according to a 2023 report by Shelter Animals Count, a nonprofit that gathers data from nearly 7,000 participating organizations.

But at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center — one of the biggest shelters in the state of Florida currently housing more than 300 cats and dogs — euthanizations are on a decline, even as they're taking in thousands more animals than the year before.

Scott Trebatoski, director of the Pet Resource Center, attributes their success to policies and practices that have made adoptions easier and pet retention higher — things they implemented well before the current surge in strays and owner surrenders.

A decade ago, when more than half the animals in the shelter were killed, the county passed a resolution to curb euthanizations and increase their live outcomes, whether through adoption, owner returns, or release into the community.

A combination of pet owner education, pet food pantries, affordable medical care and an increase in funding for resources such as veterinarians have all helped keep more animals alive.

"We decided, we're not in the business of doing euthanasia. We're in the business of saving animals," said Trebatoski.

Since then, the shelter has steadily lowered the rate of euthanizations. In 2015, about 85% of animals were either adopted, transferred or returned to their owner. This year, that number has grown to 93%.

Trebatoski said they're serious about matching the right pet to the owner's lifestyle and helping owners-in-need by offering services they otherwise cannot afford, leading to pet surrenders.

"We're doing a better job matching and that's why you're seeing the returns go down," he said, "But I think we're also capturing people that wanted to ask the question in the past, and there was nobody to answer the question, so they just left, and they didn't adopt."

Trebatoski added that they've cut down at least a few hundred animals by keeping them in their homes.

cat peeks through cage at the animal shelter
Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center
Cat adoptions are predicted to increase in 2023, according to a report by the Shelter Animals Count.

Other shelters across the nation are seeing an uptick in owner-surrenders and strays, a trend that's likely shaped by rising living costs. As residents struggle to pay for basics such as food, rent and bills, many are surrendering their pets.

Another pattern may be emerging as people move or downsize from their current homes.

"We've seen a slower than normal adoption rate for dogs. However, we've seen an incredible uptick in adoptions and placements for cats," said Trebatoski.

"And the only thing I can think that may also be related to housing if you know someone is moving into an apartment, from a home or a smaller apartment, so we're thinking that that's probably it — more people are adopting based on their housing situation."

That pattern is true for shelters across the country. The Shelter Animals Count report anticipates cat adoptions hitting a three-year high in the second half of the year, while dog adoptions are forecast to remain flat and even dip below last year's numbers.

It's also important to point out, said Trebatoski, that, before the pandemic, shelter population numbers were much higher.

As those numbers creep back up to those pre-pandemic levels, though, he said more funding and flexibility will be needed to protect animals and get them into loving homes.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.
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