Things looked promising at the beginning of COVID for the thousands of animals waiting to be adopted from animal shelters across the country. During the first lockdown in March 2020, animal shelter adoption figures rose exponentially. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home reported receiving 40,392 applications to rehome dogs from April to June 2020, an increase of 53% compared to the previous three months with 2.2 million people buying a dog in the first six months of lockdown. In contrast to these figures, 40% of people buying puppies during lockdown said that they had not previously considered getting a dog.

‘Pandemic pets’

As lockdown set in and people started adjusting to working from home and their new house-bound routines, many reconsidered their capacity to care for a companion animal and demands for puppies, in particular, increased. As a result, puppy breeders increased their prices up to three-fold, according to Pets4Homes and dogs were being brought in from abroad to cater for the higher than average demand. It was feared that the increase in prices encouraged the illegal importation of puppies or heavily pregnant dogs from smuggling hotspots in Europe as well as increasing the likelihood of animals being born with genetic defects due to the demands for certain breeds.

As demand for puppies increased, so did legal claims to pets in the midst of relationship breakdowns during this time with warring couples engaging in litigation or proceedings to settle issues of ownership and care of the animal. In a similarly increasing trend, the theft of dogs and cats in the six months March to August 2020 was up by 6% compared with the same period in 2019. The Metropolitan police reported a 75% increase in dog thefts in London as pets were targeted in burglaries and knife robberies. Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Chihuahuas being the most targeted breeds followed by German Shepherds, Jack Russells and Yorkshire Terriers.  

Not-so-happy families   

But lockdown didn’t always make for the happy endings many adopted pets and animal shelters had hoped for. As restrictions meant families and couples remaining at home, rates of domestic abuse increased so too, did divorce and separation rates. For some dogs and cats, lockdown is likely to have been an extremely fearful and abusive time as tension in households increased and pets may have become collateral victims of threats or may have been physically harmed or neglected. Those animals subjected to physical harm, emotional mistreatment or neglect may result in them acquiring behavioural issues and in turn, be more challenging to re-home, if relinquished by their owner or taken in by shelters.

The increased rates of domestic abuse during lockdown has been highly publicised and in some cases has brought into question the issue of those fleeing with their companion animals. Raising questions as to the funding available for animal shelters assisting in these circumstances and the lack of resources available for victims who delay leaving an abusive household for the sake of not leaving behind their companion animal.

Relinquishing responsibilities

But for millions of households, the economic situation worsened with people being forced to adapt to furlough, reduced income and subsequent redundancies. Many once again, reviewing their economic situation and inability to care for the companion animal purchased during lockdown. Whilst for those returning back to work the reality of life with a dog shone a light on their inability to care for their newly acquired pet. These dogs and puppies are likely to suffer significant upheaval, when their owners, who were once at home all the time, return to work, leaving their dog at home alone for prolonged periods of time.

Although Local Authorities dealt with fewer stray dogs between April to June 2020 than on average, unfortunately, the easing of lockdown and resulting attempts to return to office and onsite working has led to a mass relinquishing of pets. But the fears confirmed by animal shelters of a mass relinquishing of animals would not be the first time during lockdown. During the initial stages of lockdown, there had been an increased number of cats and dogs surrendered to shelters due to rumours that they assisted in the spreading of CoVid throughout the summer of 2020. According to the Dog’s Trust, between August 2020 and January 2021, there was a 41% increase in web traffic to its ‘Giving Up Your Dog’ page by those looking to return or give up their impulse-bought pet. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home predicts a likely increase of up to 27% more dogs abandoned or left to stray in the next five years. 25,500 stray dogs are anticipated as a direct result of the COVID-19 recession.

Like many charities dependant on public donations, animal shelters have felt the financial downturn caused by the temporary closure of their fund-raising shops and campaigns during lockdown causing a fall in the income they are dependent upon to provide much-needed services. This placing an even greater strain on their capacity to provide shelter or veterinary care or rehouse animals at a time when demand is at its highest.

Tougher sentences

In May 2021, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced that new sentences were being considered for cases of pet abandonment and ‘dognapping’. The remit of the government's pet theft task force was widened to cover the abandonment of animals amid fears that a large number of pets will be discarded once restrictions lift on working from home arrangements meaning a return to the office and so, less time at home caring for pets.

The proposals for stricter sentences concerning matters of animal welfare came at a time when the maximum prison sentences for animal cruelty was increased from six months to five years in accordance with new legislation which came into effect on 29 June 2021. The Bill followed a number of serious cases where courts have said they would have handed down longer sentences had they been available. Cases included dog fighting, cruelty towards domestic animals or gross neglect of farm animals. Pet thefts have prompted conversations as to the means under which these types of crimes are prosecuted in the criminal courts and brought into question whether prosecutions under the Theft Act, 1968 rather than animal welfare law is the correct means of bringing the individuals to account. Aside from the questions raised as to animal personhood as direct victims of criminal offences, ministers believe that prosecutions under animal welfare legislation is more likely to ensure that the emotional attachment between individuals and their pets is considered in more cases.