Animal Shelters in Crisis: Larissa Wohl on The Urgent Need For Adopting and Fostering Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

As we all try to adjust to life in the age of coronavirus, our shelter animals could become invisible casualties of this epidemic. Due to social distancing and lockdown guidelines, many shelters have been forced to severely restrict their adoption hours or close their doors altogether. This means many fewer animals leaving as the intake levels remain the same, leading to rapid overcrowding and increased euthanasia of pets in need. Shelters are also bracing for a potential spike in relinquished pets as their owners face mounting financial strain as the pandemic goes on. Luckily, there’s a simple solution – adopt and foster pets! We spoke to Larissa Wohl (host of Hallmark Channel’s Adoption Ever After) about how you can make a world of difference in a pet’s life today. 

Cliché: How has COVID-19 been impacting our shelter population?

 The coronavirus is going to affect rescue animals in SO many ways and now is the time we really need to rally to help make a difference! Because animal shelters across the country are closing their doors and working by appointment only, many people aren’t going to go that extra mile to see what animals are for adoption. In addition to that, private rescue groups are cancelling all their adoption events because of social distancing, so the animals in THEIR care aren’t being adopted either.

 That means while animals will still be turned IN to shelters and rescues (stray animals, owner surrenders, accidental litters, etc…) – no animals are going OUT. This leads to a very serious math problem where there won’t be enough room to house them all and euthanasia will have to take place for space. The other important issue is that many people are losing their jobs and won’t have the financial ability to care for their animals as time goes on. Vet visits, food, basic care, etc… can all add up with pets and the longer this coronavirus goes on, the more of a financial burden animals may become. 

How do you intend to keep spreading your message of the importance of pet adoption during the coronavirus outbreak?

Thank goodness for social media right now, right? Luckily, I’ve been continuing to stay up to date with shelters and rescue organizations to see what their current needs are. The great news is that so many amazing people have stepped up to help, so it’s been a little challenging keeping up with all the moving pieces. That said, I’m still making videos of adoptable animals and spreading awareness about how to be the best pet parent possible during these crazy times! I’ve released a few videos on my social profiles as well as my website, Hallmark Channel and Home & Family are also working hard to continue their efforts and we’ve been releasing videos and photos on their social media sites as well!

Is the lockdown having an impact on pets currently being fostered or those who have recently been adopted?

This is such a great question because I think we, rescuers, have been so focused on getting the animals out of the shelter that we’re forgetting what happens next! 

Here is the biggest issue I foresee happening… 

 All the animals who are being fostered right now or have been newly adopted are enjoying life with humans around them 24/7. That’s great except for when the day comes that we all head back to work and leave our animals at home! It’s very similar to children who have stay-at-home parents for years and then suddenly find themselves with a nanny… they may experience some sort of anxiety and act out. With animals, it can lead to, what we call, “separation anxiety.” This can take many forms such as whining, whimpering, barking or can lead to more destructive behaviors in extreme cases. Things like chewing, scratching, etc…

This behavior is usually unwanted by the adopter and can lead to frustration, anger or the returning the animal. Obviously this is not what we want and I hope I can help educate everyone to have some patience and compassion if this does happen to them.

The other wonderful thing is that they can start working on some simple training techniques NOW to try and combat these behaviors down the road. 

How can someone look into adopting an animal when so many shelters are closed at the moment?

While shelters and rescue groups are closed to the public, they are still open for intake, foster and adoption appointments. This means that you can still foster and adopt right this second! Most shelters and rescues will have an appointment link on their website so that you can connect and figure out a time to meet in person.

What should someone do if they want to foster an animal? 

Fostering is such an extraordinary way to help animals in need. This is ESPECIALLY true right now! If you’re open to fostering, please remember that it’s such a rewarding and educating experience. You can start by reaching out to your local shelters and rescue organizations and see who needs fosters. Most of them will direct you to their website where you can fill out a foster application. I always urge people to be upfront about how much of a time commitment they can offer an animal. That way the shelter or rescue can plan ahead if the animal needs another longer-term foster. Depending on the rescue or shelter you’re dealing with, fostering usually doesn’t cost money. They usually provide all the supplies needed!

As the foster, it is your job to keep the animal safe and loved and allow it to relax and unwind from the stress it’s been under. As the animal comes to learn that you and your home are safe, it’s then your job to help remind the animal how to be the best pet possible! That may mean introducing it to other animals, teaching it simple commands or manners, etc…

 All of these things are fun, fulfilling and set them up for success in their future forever home!

In addition to relieving overcrowded shelters, what are the benefits to fostering or adopting animals during this time?

 Fostering in general has many benefits, no matter when you do it! It allows you to see if you’re ready to make a lifetime commitment to an animal, teaches you valuable information about different breeds and what dog may work best for you, helps an animal reach its potential and makes an animal more adoptable. As a foster, you can provide vital insight into that animals behavior, likes, dislikes, etc…

Potential adopters LOVE to see that an animal has lived in a home environment because it makes the adoption commitment less of a guessing game! Basically it’s a win-win in every direction!

Lastly, fostering is fun and provides you with constant comical relief, companionship and love during this intense time of isolation and uncertainty. I am so thankful for my three rescue babies right now. They are helping me get through this time period immensely!

How can we best take care of our animals at this time, especially when so many regions have stay at home orders in place?

Luckily, dogs don’t require too much from us to be happy! They want our time, love, food and exercise! Most veterinarians and pet supply stores are still open and considered “essential,” so you can still get what you need. Other than that, walking, jogging, playing and cuddling is all in a perfect day for a pooch!

And just as importantly, how can we help the pets of our friends and neighbors who have the highest risk at could be unable to go outside?

Thank you for asking this! Offering to help a neighbor with their pet may mean the difference between life and death of that animal. If you know a senior citizen or someone scared to go outside, please offer to help them right now. This may lift their stress and make keeping their pet manageable. Utilize sites like NextDoor or Facebook to see who may need help near you and offer to drop off pet food, cat litter, supplies, etc…

If you are going to walk someone else’s dog right now, I’d suggest you use your own collar and leash. Wear gloves and  wash your hands afterwards. Experts don’t believe Covid-19 can live on dog fur for any amount of time because it’s porous, but use common sense when dealing with their other supplies!

 What advice do you have for people who have active pets that are now stuck inside? How can they better entertain them?

 First and foremost, I would TRY to get them outside as much as possible. If you can take a walk or go for a jog (when there’s not a lot of other foot traffic), that would be ideal. If not, using interactive toys can go a long way! Interactive puzzles, Kongs, snuffle mats etc… can help stimulate your dog physically and mentally. You can purchase them online or make your own. For safety, always supervise your dog when they’re playing with toys to ensure nothing breaks off and becomes a choking hazard.

Additionally, something that MANY people don’t realize is that training your dog is physically and mentally exhausting for them (and for you!). Simple commands like “sit” “stay” and “down” are great, or more intense tricks like “dance” or “jump” if your dog likes a real challenge! Even if you don’t need your dog to know these commands, just the act of training them can be fun, help solidify your bond with them and lead to a tired and happy pup!

Many of us are working from home or currently home all the time. When we do go back to work and start going outside again, how can we expect our pets’ behavior to change and respond to it accordingly?

 This question is similar to the one above where I talked about separation anxiety. I can almost guarantee you that many people who have fostered or adopted during this time period will suddenly see a side of their dog they don’t know when they go back to work. Again, this is to be expected and must be dealt with accordingly. 

If possible, work on creating some distance between you and your dog NOW, so that they don’t suddenly freak out when you leave the house. Utilizing boundary techniques (there’s some great online videos), crates, and/or separating them into a different room for a period of time is a great way to start! They need to learn that they can survive without you so that they don’t suddenly go into “panic mode” when you’re not there! 

What are some stories that you’ve seen in the community that are giving you hope right now?

There are so many!! First and foremost, I am so happy to see so many people stepping up to foster, adopt and donate right now! If you think back 10-20 years, people never put much emphasis on animals during times of crises or natural disasters! We’ve definitely come a long way and I hope it continues. I just read about a family that went to foster an animal during their quarantine, only to be told their was just ONE dog available. It was a pitbull type dog that didn’t like other animals. As soon as they saw this little guy (who had been passed around from shelter to shelter his whole life), they fell in love and decided to adopt him on the spot! He’s now living his best life with a family that adores him! 

I know there will be many more wonderful stories of adoption that are a result of this quarantine and I can’t wait to see them unfold!! 

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Animal Shelters in Crisis: Larissa Wohl on The Urgent Need For Adopting and Fostering Amid COVID-19 Pandemic. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Larissa Wohl.

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