The population of stray dogs in the city’s animal shelters has dramatically increased this year, stressing out both animals and staff in increasingly crowded, smelly and noisy facilities.
The three Animal Care Center (ACC) shelters took in more than 1,200 stray dogs during the first five months of the year – a roughly 50% increase from the same period of 2022, according to agency data.
The stray dogs are one factor fueling a dramatic increase in abandoned animals that is pushing shelters far beyond what ACC calls its “humane capacity.” A common reason for surrendered pets is that people simply can no longer afford them, data shows.
At the East Harlem animal shelter on East 110th Street, kennels have been halved to make more room for dogs in need of homes.
“So we are overpopulated. And with overcrowding comes a lot of issues. You know, physically for the animals, it’s hard for them. It’s noisy, a lot of barking. But also mentally, it’s really hard for them,” said ACC spokesperson Katy Hansen during a tour of the agency’s East Harlem shelter this week. The barking creates such a cacophony that staffers use earplugs to protect themselves from the din.
Many of the stray dogs are younger than 4, Hansen said. That age tracks with the record number of animals adopted by New Yorkers during the pandemic. And as the shelters swell with surrendered pets, some of the pandemic pups may have been turned out onto the streets as well.
Hansen said stray dogs are typically found wandering city streets or left tied to a fence.
Malik Mitchell of East Harlem found one of these strays – a friendly young white and brown dog – tied to a pole on 106th Street.
Mitchell brought him to the East Harlem shelter to be checked out for a microchip that might have his owner’s information. If no one claims the dog, Mitchell said he’s planning to keep him.
“He don’t got a name yet,” Mitchell said, affectionately rubbing the dog’s ears. “Got to see what he do. They got to earn that.”
New York City’s high cost of living was the top reason for the sudden increase in abandoned animals, according to Hansen. People are surrendering their longtime pets because their owners can’t afford to buy dog food or kitty litter, or pay for expensive medical care, she said.
“What we’re seeing are family animals that people have had as their animals for years,” Hansen said. “It’s families that are just struggling financially.”
In June, nearly 200 people surrendering their pets to ACC said they could no longer afford their animals or were being evicted.
While animals pour into the shelters, fewer New Yorkers are coming to their aid.
The Manhattan ACC shelter alone took in 130 new cats and 134 new dogs this week, but only adopted out 104 cats and 32 dogs.
Before the pandemic, animals would typically stay in the shelter for less than a week before being adopted — but now they’re lingering for 12 to 14 days as adoptions have slowed.
There are so many cats at the Manhattan shelter that a sign on the front door says the shelter is no longer accepting felines.
Nevertheless, Bronx resident Sondra Joseph sought to surrender her 8-year-old cat named Storm on Monday.
The white and gray cat had recently bit and clawed Joseph’s legs while suffering from an allergic reaction. Joseph said she was worried about her grandkids’ safety, as well as her own.
“She attacked me,” Joseph said. “I have bruises everywhere. And she was hanging on. I have holes in my leg…I can’t have something in the house that’s gonna attack me.”
Still, Joseph said she hopes her longtime pet, which had an irritated ear wound, will find a new home.
“I wouldn’t want her in the street, because she’s not a street cat,” she said.
An ACC staffer told Joseph that the shelter would make an exception and take Storm. But, the staffer warned, “it’s just not the best environment. And I just want to be very transparent with you. You’re putting her in a really bad situation.”
Inside the shelter’s cat rooms, dozens of felines slept on blankets in 6-foot-high stacks of kennels no bigger than a hotel mini-fridge. Calming music played over speakers to help ease the cats’ nerves.
Jennifer Utting of Astoria came to the Manhattan shelter specifically to help ease the overcrowding by adopting a cat.
She and her partner, Tim Mafus, chose Macarena, a friendly young tabby with feline leukemia who had been living at the shelter for five months.
“Our cat died a few months ago. We were ready. We knew about the overcapacity,” Utting said.
The shelters are encouraging New Yorkers to adopt more pets, with a current campaign offering $5 adoption fees for older cats and large dogs, a discount of $20.
A June presentation to the ACC board cites stress, heightened risk of disease and burnout among staff and volunteers as consequences of the overcrowding.
Meanwhile, ACC is building two new shelters in Ridgewood and the Bronx, and renovating its East New York shelter.
Hansen said the new shelters will provide the city’s abandoned animals with improved facilities that are more spacious.
“The housing that we provide will be amazing. Animals won’t get stressed, they won’t mentally break down, they won’t physically break down,” she said. “Not that we want them to want to stay, but we want it to be luxurious for them.”