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During coronavirus closures, what happens to animal shelters?

The coronavirus pandemic is prompting many U.S. cities to close gyms, bars and other sites of social gathering. Here's what some animal shelters are doing.
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By Rhania Kamel

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted closures and restrictions across the country. Schools, restaurants, gyms, bars and nightclubs are just some of the places asked to close or work with limited hours in states like New York, Ohio and Illinois.

In addition, San Francisco Bay Area residents are living under a "shelter in place" order, one of the country's most restrictive responses to the pandemic. A shelter-in place order means that nonessential services are closed. So places like grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants with takeout- or delivery-only options, among others, will remain open. These restrictions, and others like them, have been put in place to help social distancing efforts.

While grocery stores, pharmacies and small businesses may be top of mind during the crisis, other organizations must also carry on, including animal shelters and pet rescue groups. Whether you've already got a pet at home or are looking to adopt or foster, shelters across the country are updating their sites with COVID-19 information.

What are some animal shelters across the country doing?

The San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control issued its guidelines regarding pets and the coronavirus; the taxpayer-funded shelter recommends that pet owners should plan ahead for pet care if they become ill and have plenty of food and supplies on hand. They should also plan ahead for their animals as they would in any disaster or emergency. The SFACC would "have no means to organize caring for animals in homes if the owners are hospitalized" and they would "take custody cases as usual, but have very limited capacity."

Animal Haven, a shelter in New York City, has taken preventive measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Tiffany Lacey, the nonprofit organization's executive director, said that about a week ago, Animal Haven reduced its hours of operation to appointments only for adoptions from Tuesdays through Sundays. "But I can tell you that that’s even going to change because we’re going to lower that probably starting on Friday to fewer days and less hours," she told TODAY by phone.

Lacey said that while Animal Haven has a duty to the animals as a welfare organization, it is also concerned for the entire nation, city, state and its staff and volunteers. The nonprofit plans to have a skeleton staff by next week but also hopes to have fewer animals as a result of adoptions and fostering, thanks to an "army of volunteers."

Similarly, the Animal Care Centers of NYC restricted general admission on March 16. Only interested adopters, fosters and emergency-only pet surrenders will be allowed in the building. "Unaccompanied minors as well as groups consisting of three or more people will not be allowed inside the building."

What are larger animal organizations doing?

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' most recent site update includes the suspension of various client services to help protect employees, clients and animals. The suspended services include spay/neutering mobile clinic services in New York and Los Angeles and preventive services in Miami like "vaccinations, deworming, microchipping, screenings for FeLV/FIV tests, Heartworm tests, or intestinal parasites, for otherwise healthy animals."

“The ASPCA is committed to prioritizing the health and safety of pets and their owners, and we are closely monitoring developments related to COVID-19,” Dr. Stephanie Janeczko, vice president of ASPCA shelter medicine services, said on the organization's website. “A pet’s first line of defense is a well-prepared owner, and we strongly encourage pet owners to take the necessary precautions and incorporate pets into their preparedness plans to keep their family — including their pets — healthy."

ASPCA also recommends that owners wash their hands before and after handling their pet's food, supplies or the pets themselves. Owners should stock up on pet supplies including a 30-day supply of your pets’ medications and at least two weeks’ worth of food. Designating an emergency caregiver is also a good tactic as well as preparing a dossier for your pet that includes their habits, preferences, medical conditions and any other relevant information.

Similarly, the Humane Society of the United States recommends that owners do the above in addition to adopting a pet. HSUS stresses that now is a great time because it can help reduce "the potential strain on shelters" in case these organizations start to see an increase in the number of requests to provide foster care for pets of people who become seriously ill or need to be hospitalized.

If adopting or fostering isn't something you can do, the organization recommends donating supplies to both animal shelters and other organizations like human food banks.

What can you do to help?

Similar to HSUS' recommendations, Lacey suggests reaching out to your local shelters to see if they need help fostering or adopting animals. She also recommends making monetary donations if you are unable to help by fostering or adopting an animal. Donations are something that can be done remotely. "It’s a big hit to all of us and our goal right now is just to take it day by day," she said.

She also encourages people to contact their local shelter first. At a time when social distancing and limited travel is encouraged, it's best to contact shelters via email or phone first to set up an appointment to come in.

Can the pet I have at home get me sick?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that so far, it hasn't received any reports of pets or other animals becoming sick with COVID-19. However, the agency recommends proper hand-washing after being around animals, since they can still spread other diseases to humans.

Can I get my pet sick if I have COVID-19?

If you contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the CDC recommends restricting contact with pets just like you would with people. Limited contact with animals is recommended until "more is known about the virus."

When possible, sick owners should have another member of the household care for their pets. A good rule of thumb is to avoid contact like petting, snuggling, being kissed or licked and sharing food. "If you must care for your pet or be around animals while you are sick, wash your hands before and after you interact with pets and wear a facemask."