When the novel coronavirus forced families to cancel their vacations—and their reservations at the Family Vet pet hotel—veterinarian Jeff Smith knew the 60 rooms in his Danville, Virginia, veterinary office and boarding facility could be a lifeline for those working overtime to fight the pandemic. 

In March, Smith started offering free boarding to the pets of healthcare workers and first responders. He has 60 spaces available in the luxury boarding facility and invited essential workers to drop off their dogs and cats for expert care while they focus on caring for others. 

“We knew that healthcare workers and first responders were working long hours, sometimes sleeping at work,” says Smith. “It causes a lot of extra stress to know that your dog is at home, alone, and we wanted to help.” 

Dogs at Family Vet facility

Family Vet cares for healthcare workers’ dogs

Barks and Rec, a boarding facility in Columbus, Ohio, also started offering free boarding and doggie daycare to hospital workers and first responders.

This is hopeful news. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofits, veterinary clinics, pet food companies, pet stores, and generous individuals have stepped up to help. 

Filling a Pet-Food Need

Pittsylvania Pet Center food drive

Pet food donations from the Pittsylvania Pet Center

Although there is no evidence that pets can transmit the virus to humans, COVID-19 is affecting them too. 

Job losses have made it more difficult for pet owners to afford food and vet care (and triggered worries about an increase in the number of dogs and cats being surrendered to shelters). Pet parents who become ill may have difficulty caring for their pets. And essential workers are logging extra hours, leaving their pets alone for long periods. Several shelters have also closed, leaving some adoptable pets with nowhere to go. 

James McLaughlin, director of the Pittsylvania Pet Center, recognized that many local families were facing economic hardship as a result of the pandemic. He opened a pet food pantry in the hopes it would reduce the number of animals surrendered to the shelter. On opening day, the county shelter in Chatham, Virginia, distributed 600 pounds of pet food in three hours. The shelter has received donations from individuals and nonprofits to help keep up with demand.

“The need is tremendous and it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” McLaughlin says. “If there is something we can do to help keep pets in their homes, we want to help.”

Nationwide, shelters have received an increased number of requests for free pet food from pet owners affected by the pandemic. 

The San Diego Humane Society pledged to distribute more than 70,000 pounds of pet food and supplies, including cat litter and pet beds, to income-qualified families. In Louisville, Kentucky, the Kentucky Humane Society launched a COVID-19 Pet Food Bank to provide free pet food that is stocked thanks to donations from pet food brands and Amazon Wish List donations. 

Holi Chow, manufacturers of custom dog food, also recognized the need to support pets affected by COVID-19 and donated 8,000 pounds of dog food to shelters and rescues in New York and New Jersey.  

“As terrible as this time is for everyone, for a direct-to-consumer pet food brand, our business is seeing growth as more customers turn to ecommerce,” says David Kovacs, founder and CEO. “This was our way to help.” 

Free and Low-Cost Veterinary Services

Dog at the veterinary clinic

Peter Chun, CEO of Veterinary Care Group, wanted to make sure that those hardest hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19 were not skimping on veterinary care during the pandemic.  

“I heard about all of the layoffs and furloughs in the restaurant and hospitality industry and wanted to give back,” Chun says.

Veterinary Care Group started offering free wellness exams at all 12 of its New York locations to those who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Recently, a laid off restaurant employee brought his sick dog to the clinic and had tears in his eyes when the staff told him there was no charge for the visit. 

Rescues and Fosters Adapt to Place Pets in Need

Animal shelters adapt during COVID-19

The pandemic has also forced many shelters to close their doors to the public, making standard pet adoption protocols difficult.  

In response, shelters have worked quickly to reinvent their foster and adoption programs and many have gotten creative in finding ways to do these lifesaving functions virtually, says Barbara Williamson, media relations manager for Best Friends Animal Society, the largest no-kill animal rescue in the nation. 

Williamson points to virtual adoption fairs, name-your-price adoption events, and drive-through foster pickups that have helped get adoptable pets out of shelters and into forever homes. She hopes it’s part of a long-term trend of efforts that will ensure pets find (and remain in) loving homes. 

“In times of crisis, people look for comfort and ways to help,” she says. “Our next steps are to find out how we can hold onto that positive energy and keep people engaged long-term.”

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