Baltimore County Animal Services got a call early this month about a family that was being evicted. Workers went and collected a dog, cat and turtle.
Already at the county-run shelter was a gentle, silver-blue pit bull mix named Storm Ray who was surrendered with her mother after their family moved somewhere that didn’t allow pets. The mother soon got adopted, leaving her daughter behind.
In Maryland and many places around the country, housing-related issues are now the main reason pets are surrendered. Animal shelters are filling up with beloved pets from families who’ve lost their homes or can’t find an affordable place to live that allows companion animals. In the Baltimore area, dogs in particular are being surrendered and abandoned now at rates never seen.
The county shelter in Baldwin tries to connect people with resources that could help them keep their pets, like food banks that offer pet supplies and low-cost vet clinics, said Abby Isaacs, a spokeswoman.
“It’s best for the animal and the people to keep them together,” Isaacs said. “But if they lose their home or have a landlord issue, there isn’t always something we can do.”
The growing link between the affordable housing crisis and homeless pet crisis is getting increased attention and spawning new ideas and collaborative efforts to reverse the trend. Tenant and animal advocates have a long to-do list that includes lifting companion animal restrictions in emergency and subsidized housing, building relationships with landlords, and lobbying insurers to stop increasing premiums or denying coverage to renters with pets.
The advocacy group ASPCA is supporting federal legislation including the Providing for Unhoused People and Pets (PUPP) Act that would create a grant program for homeless shelters to accommodate people with pets. Another bill, the Pets Belong with Families Act, would remove restrictions on pet breeds and sizes in public housing facilities.
“We are actively advocating for more equitable access to pet-friendly housing, which, unfortunately, is becoming increasingly scarce,” the group said in a statement.
According to the Shelter Animals Count, a national database for shelters and rescue organizations, shelters are taking in more animals and adopting fewer out. An estimated 245,000 extra dogs and cats were added last year, just through November.
“We see what’s happening in the community reflected in the shelters,” said executive director Stephanie Filer. “If affordable housing is an issue in the community, it makes complete sense shelters are affected.”
Maryland shelters took in at least 40,700 animals in 2023, according to shelters and rescue groups that reported to Shelter Animals Count, putting pressure on local shelters that must take all pets brought to them.
Baltimore County Animal Services’ shelter reported that more than a quarter of the 1,943 animals surrendered in 2023 arrived for housing-related reasons — the most surrendered due to housing since 2019, when the shelter began collecting the data after workers started noticing the trend. And adoptions haven’t kept pace with surrenders and strays.
Shelter staff said this could indicate more financial stress and fewer housing options in the county and surrounding regions. Job loss, higher housing costs and inflation have all overburdened Marylanders since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, they noted.
Baltimore County turns to a network of foster families and rescue groups when they reach capacity, but also sometimes relies on its own staff to take animals home.
Carrie McCloskey, the shelter chief, said staff keep the surrender process simple and offer compassion so people don’t abandon animals in the community or even outside the shelter. Some people, often embarrassed or ashamed about their circumstances, claim they are surrendering “strays,” which limits the information about the animal that may help them get adopted.
“We try to help them, make sure they don’t feel judged, but we need all the information we can get to help the animal find a new home,” she said.
The Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter in Baltimore City also is at capacity, Executive Director Jennifer Brause said. By mid-2023, the latest period through which it had collected data, the shelter had taken in 700 pets that were surrendered for housing-related reasons, which include evictions, resistance from landlords and affordability challenges. In all of 2019, by comparison, 500 pets were surrendered for those reasons.
BARCS commissioned a study last year from the National Organization for Human-Animal Support Services, which found that 70% of pet owners in the city faced pet-related housing restrictions in the last three years. And the No. 1 reason behind pet surrenders in the city? Housing, according to the study.
Brause said shelters can help by reducing some of the load on pet owners: offering free vaccinations and spay/neuter services when possible, providing free equipment such as leashes and collars, or offering temporary boarding services for pets during times of crisis. Those resources are finite, though, and some of the problems are systemic and well beyond their control.
At a September 2023 public forum on pets and housing in Mount Washington, Jessica Simpson, senior public policy specialist at the Humane Society of the United States, said pet fees tend to be higher and more cumbersome in lower-income communities, which also tend to lack other resources, including grooming services, pet supply stores and veterinarian offices.
Monica Cooper, owner of two pit bulls and the leader of the nonprofit Maryland Justice Project, noted that she’s struggled to find housing that will accept her dogs due to what she views as arbitrary restrictions on breeds and weight. Cooper, who lives in West Baltimore, said she often can’t help but notice that many pit bull owners she meets, like her, are Black.
“I would rather be homeless than leave my pets, and for people who have to make that decision, it never leaves them,” Cooper said.
Chinelo Osakwe, government and community affairs manager at the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which represents landlords and property owners, said state courts have ruled that some housing providers can be held liable if a pet attacks another person on their property. And some damage caused by animals can cause property owners to lose their licenses.
“It’s a challenge to mitigate these two factors,” Osakwe said. “How to keep residents safe and keep them with their animals, but also how to not break the law.”
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, Maryland state director of the Humane Society, is lobbying Annapolis lawmakers this year to introduce legislation that would prohibit landlords who receive low-income housing tax credits after Jan. 1, 2025, from issuing blanket restrictions on pets. State Del. Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat, will sponsor the measure in the House of Delegates, and Bevan-Dangel hopes to land a sponsor in the Senate soon.
Back in Baltimore County, Storm Ray has been reunited with her mom, who was returned to the shelter.
But in a bright spot for the shelter, the family that owned Bud, Bandit and Charlie — the recently evicted turtle, cat and dog — called and said they were coming the next day to reclaim their pets. Even though no one arrived by noon, when they were slated to go up for adoption, or even by closing time, workers decided to wait.
“They did come, the dad and the daughter,” Isaacs said. “They found another place. The pets are home.”
This story has been updated to clarify that the number of adoptions have not kept up with the number of surrenders and strays at the Baltimore County Animal Services shelter.