In Seattle, the pandemic separates pets from owners — but there’s help

Cash-strapped pet owners struggling to take care of their furry friends are finding aid through shelters across the city.

Molly Quinn, her partner, Chris, and 7-month-old Korra. (Molly Quinn)

It’s no surprise that Seattle is a haven for pet owners. According to the latest census data, Seattle has more dogs than children, 153,000 to 107,178. Pet-oriented businesses continue to flourish. The past six years have brought 45 pet-friendly hotels, 150 pet-friendly restaurants, and four dedicated cat cafes.

Those numbers have only increased during the pandemic, with Seattleites waiting months to adopt pets and searching as far as Mexico. Since May 2020, the Seattle Humane* alone reported 1,527 pet adoptions.

But while many Seattleites were welcoming a new “family” member to help soothe pandemic anxiety, others struggled to care for them during the accompanying financial crisis — and many had to give them up. 

"The pandemic has created a greater divide between those that can afford pets and those that just can't anymore," says Jme Thomas, executive director of the Motley Zoo animal shelter. Of the 4.6% of Seattleites who remain unemployed, approximately 63% are pet owners who now potentially face large veterinary bills. According to Dr. Debra Nicholson from Rainier Beach Vet Hospital, treating an animal with IV fluids can cost up to $200 a day. Similar services at BluePearl Vet Hospital can be up to $1,000 a day.  

Molly Quinn lost her three part-time jobs in different coffee shops during the pandemic. Like others, she struggled to obtain unemployment benefits through the congested government system. In September 2020, Quinn discovered her 7-week-old puppy, Korra, had contracted canine parvovirus, a highly infectious disease so commonly fatal that veterinarians nickname it “the puppy killer.” 

After spending $5,000 for six days of treatment at Blue Pearl, Quinn learned Korra needed to be in the hospital for an additional 2½ weeks, at a cost of $16,000. Quinn couldn’t afford the expense, but she felt trapped. Hospitalized puppies have a 90% chance of survival versus a 70% survival rate for those treated with outpatient care. 

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Korra and Molly Quinn, shortly after Korra’s adoption. (Molly Quinn)

"I didn't like the thought of having to choose between a financial situation or my dog's life," she says. 

But Quinn and Korra caught a lucky break. To help pet owners like Quinn, the Seattle Humane has been working throughout the pandemic with private and nonprofit vets to secure multiple resources for the pet community. The Pet Owner Assistance Fund, SPOT (Supporting Pet Owners in Transition) and Home to Home are all programs aimed at helping pet owners case by case. Though some programs existed before the coronavirus outbreak, the Pet Owner Assistance Fund was created specifically to help pet owners in need through the pandemic. 

"The stories that are behind it are really very personal and slightly vulnerable. ... We've been able to dispense about $60,000 of money to help support people and keep them united with their pets," said Seattle Humane CEO Christopher Ross. "This pandemic has created a lot of challenges for people and animal welfare, but it also allowed Seattle Humane to really rise to the occasion and help support the community in greater ways.”

“[The Pet Owner Assistance Fund] has just been remarkable. We've supported about 200 families now,” he said. “And that's just been from July of last year to January of this year.”

Though they declined to provide specific figures, Seattle Humane stepped in to provide thousands of dollars to aid Korra’s treatment. In nine days, she recovered.

"[Korra] was on her deathbed — this baby had barely lived, and we wanted to give her her best shot," said Quinn in an interview, with Korra, now 7 months old, sitting next to her. “Seattle Humane really did go above and beyond.” 

But for many, the issue remains. Vet hospitals report being at total capacity, and many (including Blue Pearl and Rainier Beach) do not offer payment plans. Blue Pearl (which did not return calls or emails by publication time) and other animal hospitals sometimes offer deferred payment plans known as “care credit.” But these can be difficult to obtain for pet owners with poor or no credit history. 

Waits at animal shelters for spaying and neutering can be up to 14 weeks. Motley Zoo’s Thomas reports that animals who need emergency room treatment often must wait hours for care, and appointments with specialists also typically require an extensive waitlist. According to Dr. Nicholson of Rainier Beach Vet Hospital, "most vet clinics are overbooked and struggling" because of an increase in patients and because there is a higher demand for puppy and kitten adoptions, many of whom have special needs. 

Animal shelters like Burien C.A.R.E.S and Motley Zoo confirm  Nicholson’s claims. The competition for dogs is so high that organizations are currently receiving animals from countries outside the U.S., like Mexico. 

A feral cat waiting to be transported to a new facility at Burien C.A.R.E.S. (Caroline Guzman)

A feral cat waiting to be transported to a new facility at Burien C.A.R.E.S. (Caroline Guzman)

Monique Shiels, an animal care specialist at Burien C.A.R.E.S., shared an example of a litter of four local kittens that came in and were all adopted within a few days. "One of the kittens passed away a couple of days after they got here, and [another] almost didn't make it,” Shiels said. “We had to pull him out a few times a day because he couldn't get in and get the milk like everybody else. He weighed about a pound. [He’s now] 2½ pounds," 

“It just so happened that the pandemic made these animals more visible,” Thomas explained. 

As jobs shift from office to home, many people have more time to take care of pets. But many are first-time pet owners with special-needs animals, and many of the owners are unprepared for the attention and follow-ups the pets require. Distinguishing emergency situations from normal behavior can be difficult for first-time owners, and simple mistakes can be catastrophic: Dr. Nicholson has treated puppies who were chewing squeakers that were inappropriate for their age, causing aspiration and a need for surgery. "It takes time to respond to those individual emails, and we are understaffed," said Dr. Nicholson. 

Because of the coronavirus, many vets and animal shelters have reduced their staff and volunteers, distributing more responsibility among the few who remain. Still, vet clinics and shelters are finding ways to adapt. "Our adoption rate hasn't dropped, but it used to be chaotic, while now we regulate more who is coming to the door. We've really taken the time to utilize it to our advantage," says Shiels.

Some vets are attempting to relieve the financial hardship during this time. For instance, Rainier Beach Vet Hospital has four practices in the area and a nonprofit animal fund intended to cover surgeries to help low-income and homeless families. They also have partnerships with other organizations that provide additional services.

"We didn't have the money to do a lot of these clinics, but then we just kind of push forward to do it because the need was bigger," Dr. Nicholson said.

Vets and many organizations recommend getting pet insurance, but monthly costs can average almost $46, and it often doesn't cover all expenses. Those who can’t afford it often create GoFundMe campaigns as a stopgap.

Still, Seattleites are discovering that they need their animals more than ever to weather the ongoing pandemic. Given that, Quinn recommended that strapped pet owners reach out to as many shelters as possible to look for emergency funding and grants. Seattle Humane’s programs are available through applications on its website.

"Korra means the absolute world to me — I don't think I would live without my dog," Quinn said.

 

*The article initially referred to Seattle Humane as Seattle Humane Society. Crosscut regrets the error.