WESTERN NEW YORK (WIVB) — Millions of pets were adopted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now, adoption rates are slowing down and some pets are even being returned.

“I think honestly, for the rescues, nothing good happened from the pandemic,” Jeanne D’Angelo, Buffalo events coordinator for Joyful Rescues in Cattaraugus County, said.

There was a surge in pet adoptions across the United States because people were stuck in their homes. As the world returns to normal, adoption rates are slowing down; shelters and rescues are filling with pets again.

“A lot of shelters cleared out people couldn’t even get dogs at one point because everybody was adopting dogs,” Julie Starr, co-founder of Buddy’s Second Chance Rescue, added.

Twenty-three million households adopted pets in 2020, which far exceeded years past. That is one-in-five homes across the country. Now, as restrictions lift, and people return to daily activities, many pets have been left behind. They are not used to being away from their owners for extended periods of time, which can lead to behavioral and psychological problems.

Joyful Rescues kind of thinks that we’ve really gone back probably about 15 years in time,” D’Angelo said. “[We’ve gone back to] the things that we were fighting 15 years ago. We’ve kind of lost a lot of the gains that we’ve made in recent years.”

While nationally, there is not a surge in pets being surrendered, there is a new term for animals who are being returned.

“A ‘pandemic pet’ is, you know, an animal that was acquired during the COVID pandemic where everybody was at home in the world was shut down,” Dr. Kimberly Parkhill, medical director at McBride Animal Hospital, said.

Dr. Parkhill also explained some pets were adopted impulsively because humans did not want to be alone during such a difficult time. Now, rescues are receiving many messages from people who want to surrender their pets.

“[We receive] daily messages and emails of people just to surrendering their dogs. We’ve seen a crazy, huge amount — just — it’s very heartbreaking. It’s hard to talk about,” Starr said.

Buddy’s Second Chance Rescue and Joyful Rescues foster dogs from high kill shelters and work to find them forever homes in Western New York. Both say they have heard of people trying to return their pets as they return to normal life.

“A lot of people don’t understand going into a shelter environment is very very stressful. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I’ll surrender my dog with shelter. They’ll find a home.’,” Starr said. “It’s really not how it works.”

D’Angelo said returning to normal activities can also have a toll on pets, which could result in behavioral and emotional problems. Returning pets can also negatively affect animals.

“It’s very confusing to the animal and that’s really why we try so hard to make the first match to be the last match,” D’Angelo said.

From a health standpoint, Dr. Parkhill says pet-owners should be concerned about their animals’ mental health. She added that psychological health is a major component of overall welfare.

“That [being surrendered or returning to normal] takes a toll on their mental health. Even though people don’t necessarily associate pets with mental health, it’s something that we talk about. They do have anxiety and they do have feelings. You’re seeing those manifested and that’s hard,” Dr. Parkhill said.

There are resources available for pets who are struggling with the new normal. Dr. Parkhill says there are behavioral specialists, dog trainers and even veterinarians like her who can help. Rescues can also provide resources to pet owners.

Many rescues have struggled during the pandemic, especially as adoption rates have decreased after a spike in the early days of COVID. Joyful Rescues said their adoptions are down right now, meaning they cannot save dogs from high-kill shelters and bring them to the Greater-Buffalo area.

“If our adoptions are down, then we can’t take as many dogs in from the high-kill shelters, because we’re trying to anticipate how many adoptions we’re gonna have next week,” D’Angelo added.

The cost to rescue is also on the rise. For Buddy’s Second Chance, they typically spend more than the adoption fee to bring the dog to New York and provide them medical care. They also provide other supplies like food, collars, leashes and toys to new pet owners, which is an added expense.

“You’re looking at at least $300 and that’s just before the dog basically even walks in the door. Then, we have food, then we have treats, leashes, collars, toys,” Starr continued. “Our adoption fees are $400, but we usually exceed that with almost every dog.”

For these organizations, their primary goal was and continues to be helping pets find families and homes in Western New York, no matter the cost or the challenges that stand in their way. They look forward to the moment that pets unite with their families.

“It’s heartwarming. It’s why I started this organization in the first place because we want to save dogs. We want to see them go to the forever home. Seeing them from the beginning to the end is quite a journey,” Starr concluded.

Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.