The U.S. is currently under a temporary nationwide eviction moratorium that stops landlords from evicting roughly 43 million rental households if tenants can’t afford to pay rent due to the COVID-19 crisis. The moratorium was recently extended until the end of January — which is a compassionate step — but once it expires, the considerable impact on evicted renters may be exponentially more tragic if they own animals. Compounding this crisis is the rising number of pet-owning homeowners facing foreclosure.
Though pets are incredible sources of love and companionship in our lives — and bring more comfort than ever during these stressful times — they are very vulnerable to separation if their owners are evicted, and having pets can represent a significant challenge to finding affordable housing. Pets are also often not allowed in temporary shelters and government-subsidized housing, forcing dedicated owners to make unbearable choices.
Lack of housing leads to giving up pets
A study we released in 2015 showed that lack of pet-friendly housing options was a top reason pet owners in New York City and Washington, D.C. relinquished their pets to animal shelters. The number of pets affected by housing insecurity is staggering. Based on pets-in-housing estimates we released this month, approximately 19.2 million dogs and cats live in households that are not current with their rent or mortgage payments. This includes over 9.8 million dogs and cats living in rental homes and 9.4 million dogs and cats living in owned homes.
This vulnerability is reflective of an even broader systemic challenge to pets: poverty. In August, we released data showing that more than 4.2 million pets in the U.S. are likely to enter poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis. Consequently, the total number of animals living in poverty with their owners could rise to more than 24.4 million dogs, cats, horses, and other animals — a 21% increase compared to pre-COVID estimates.
This housing emergency puts a new tragic face on a truth we’ve known for some time: what happens to people affects pets, and what happens to pets affects people.
So, what can be done? Even in a contentious political climate, maybe more than you think.
First, we need to put pressure on Congress to not only further extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures but improve it and reduce future risk by narrowing exceptions, prohibiting late fees and making it easier for renters to pay back rent. Congress should also provide additional funding for housing and homelessness programs to help communities respond to the coronavirus crisis. The incoming Biden administration can also help minimize suffering by extending the eviction moratorium and ensuring that the $25 billion Congress recently allocated to emergency rental assistance reaches families with pets.
Second, we need to identify, create and support local and national laws and policies that expand affordable pet-friendly housing options and reject policies that ban pets, prohibit specific breeds or restrict pet ownership based on animal size.
Helping all those suffering
Third, we must invest and commit to programs that help people suffering from economic hardship keep the pets they love and cherish. This effort crucially includes accessible and affordable veterinary care and the provision of free resources and supplies like pet food. Since launching our own COVID-19 Relief & Recovery Initiative in March, the ASPCA has helped more than 320,000 dogs, cats and horses across the country with an array of medical services and critical supplies — including providing more than 1,900 tons of emergency food for dogs, cats, and horses — to struggling owners in economically hard-hit communities of New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles.
Finally, while the COVID crisis has taken a lot from our lives, it shouldn’t reduce our compassion for each other or for animals in need. Please consider reaching out to your local shelter to find out how you can help by providing a temporary foster home for a displaced pet or filling other critical needs during this stressful time.
The devastating economic hardships of poverty, the COVID-19 crisis, and impending evictions and foreclosures will create severe challenges and consequences for millions of pets, but remember that every pet protected is a person deeply comforted. One’s financial situation has no bearing on their ability to give and receive love from a pet, and we should see to it — as a society that values compassion and family preservation — that housing insecurity doesn’t shatter human or animal lives.
Matt Bershadker is the president and CEO of the ASPCA.