Foster pets are finding homes with London families housebound in the pandemic

So many people are seeking out a foster pet to ride out with pandemic with, the normally bustling Animal Care Centre shelter is nearly empty and as a result, eerily quiet.

People seem to be seeking out a friend to soothe their loneliness and battle boredom

A stray cat passes time in one of dozens of cages at the Animal Care Centre. It's one of very few residents during the pandemic, as more people seek to foster pets. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit last March, Kent Lattanzio thought staff at the Animal Care Centre (ACC) would be overwhelmed in the ensuing lockdown, with wave after wave of pets whose owners couldn't take care of them. 

"There was some speculation that we would see an increase in animals coming into the shelter because people were running into employment issues," the operations director of the private shelter under contract to the city said. 

"That was the first thing that came to everyone's mind, but it was actually the opposite."

The Animal Care Centre is a private company that processes dog and cat licences, enforces city animal bylaws, takes care of lost animals and provides shelter services under contract to the City of London. 

Intake of cats and dogs down almost a third

Normally dozens of dogs occupy these kennels waiting for adoption. When CBC News visited the shelter, there were only two. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The shelter takes in thousands of stray animals every year and publicly posts those numbers on its website. Its live release rate has always hovered at around 90 per cent or above, even though the actual number of animals the shelter takes in fluctuates year-to-year.

In 2018 the ACC took in 2,029 cats and dogs combined. In 2019 the number stayed relatively flat at 2,196.

In 2020, the shelter's intake shrank by almost a third to 1,613, which Lattanzio said started as soon as the pandemic began in March. 

"We're running at a very low number week-to-week of about three to five dogs, maybe six to eight cats," he said, noting the shelter typically sees up to 10 dogs and 30 cats each week. 

As a result, the shelter sounds more like a library than a zoo. The cacophony of barks and meows and the cloying scent of animals living densely together has been replaced with silence and the sterile smell of bleach.

The story of why the shelter is so empty isn't just about lower intake during the pandemic. It turns out the epidemic has also created the conditions for animals finding foster homes faster than ever before.

Quarantined Londoners looking for companionship

A foster cat looks through the bars of a cage inside the London Animal Care Centre on Pine Valley Boulevard. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Throughout the pandemic people have been warned to avoid social situations and distance themselves from others to avoid the spread of COVID-19 at bars, restaurants, offices and house parties.

Just because people are forced to quarantine, it doesn't mean they're choosing to do it alone. The combination of loneliness and spare time has led many people to look online for companionship and unlike online dating, which the pandemic has made risky, adopting an animal beats back boredom and scratches a social itch with little risk of getting sick. 

The result, Lattanzio said, is foster pets are finding homes quickly. 

"When they do go out for adoption, they're generally going out in the first day."

Fewer dog licences purchased in pandemic

Kent Lattanzio is the director of operations at the Animal Care Centre in London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

While the public interest in pets is up, it seems the interest in actually getting them licensed is down. 

Lattanzio said since the pandemic began, the city has seen its first dip in the number of dog licences purchased. 

"Our licensing in London has always been on an incline up until March 2020."

"We had seen a decrease in licensing in 2020 and I think that's basically due to the fact that everyone was trying to adjust to the impact of the pandemic."

The City of London has not just seen a rise in foster pet applications during the pandemic, it also reports a rise in the number of people who are seeking dog licenses online. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Before the pandemic, animal enforcement officers would go door-to-door, educating pet owners on dog licensing, cat identification and the benefits of spaying and neutering for the sake of community health. 

To avoid getting sick, enforcement officers now only make house calls in emergency situations, which includes injured, sick or aggressive animals.

Most of the education and enforcement happens by phone these days. While it's lowered the risk of spreading the virus, it's also lowered the number of pet owners licensing their animals. 

"That education and impact that animal services officers have with contact with the public definitely assists with that," Lattanzio said. 

Cages at the Animal Care Centre in London, Ont., sit nearly empty. Staff say the shelter has seen a rise in foster applications as people seek out a friend during the coronavirus pandemic. (Colin Butler/CBC News)