State Animal Shelters, Rescue Groups Battling Overflow Crisis

A kitten being fed by syringe.

Alexandra Kay/CC Spin

A 3-day-old kitten is tube fed at the Bay Area Alliance for Animals in San Carlos.

A version of this story first appeared in, the website for Contra Costa Youth Journalism.

It’s becoming commonplace in open-intake shelters and rescue facilities across the Bay Area: The number of unadopted pets is growing; animal caretakers and staff are stretched thin; and efforts by local municipalities to provide care and comfort to every animal surrendered is becoming increasingly difficult.

California animal shelters and rescue organizations – even those across the country – are experiencing an overflow crisis. The number of stray dogs taken into shelters rose 6% from 2022 statistics and 22% from 2021, according to Shelter Animals Count. 

“I just can’t remember so many dogs coming in every single day,” said Sue James, board president of the Tri-Valley Animal Rescue. The Dublin-based volunteer organization provides medical care and fostering services to animals from the East County Animal Shelter. James said many shelters around the country “are overflowing, and it’s a tough time.”

The Solano County shelter – located just north of the Bay Area in Fairfield – currently has a two-year waiting list to surrender an animal due to capacity restrictions. Shelters have to take into account the health of the animals they keep in their facilities. When they create capacity restrictions, they must make sure every animal has its own dedicated space. 

Alexandra Kay, board president of the Bay Area Alliance for Animals in San Carlos, said another cause of shelter overflow is the lack of awareness on how much maintenance and expense is involved in taking care of a small animal. 

“It takes a little bit of time for these things to add up, to know that care is very expensive,” Kay said. “Pet food is very expensive. Flea treatment is very expensive, and that’s also saying that nothing goes wrong with your animal, like needing surgery for chronic conditions.”

James mentioned that people buying from breeders raises a problem, as well. 

“If people would learn more about the joys of adopting shelter animals and saving their lives perhaps more people would adopt versus buy,” James said. 

Euthanasia on the rise

As the number of animals in shelters increases, so do euthanasia rates. About 920,000 shelter dogs and cats are euthanized annually, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Traditionally, rescue organizations such as the Tri-Valley Animal Rescue take on the overflow from open-intake shelters, which possess a legal obligation to take in any stray animal from their jurisdiction brought or surrendered to their facility by Animal Control or the public. This is creating a challenge for volunteers who foster in their homes animals on the euthanasia list.

Another challenge is the cost of spaying and neutering animals, said Amanda Lee of the Underdog Animal Rescue in Lafayette.

“Pretty much nowhere, in the Bay Area specifically, do we have what we call no-cost, or low-cost spay and neuter clinics,” Lee said. “We used to before COVID, and most shelters had some sort of option, but now because everything’s running just differently in general, there’s very few options.”

According to Lee, spay and neuter services at the average veterinarian clinic start at around $700. 

“The only reason that overpopulation is a problem is because there is not enough spay and neuter happening,” Lee said, adding that there is “not enough education behind it, not enough resources.”

Fostering a positive environment

Currently, the Tri-Valley Animal Rescue offers incentives for fosters until the animal gets adopted, as well as a program where volunteers can pick up animals from the East County Animal Shelter and take them for walks and socializing, and give them love. 

James said the goal is to “keep them as happy as they can be in the shelter environment while they wait to get adopted from the shelter,” James said. 

She added that her group shares with Underdog Animal Rescue the goal of removing animals from negative shelter environments and moving them to positive foster environments. 

Underdog’s Lee said that an animal shelter environment can feel “highly stressful. Just a person going in there, it’s loud, it’s cold, there’s no emotion.”

The Bay Area Alliance neuters animals for free to prevent pet overpopulation and provides care for animals on the euthanasia list. 

“There is no room for those animals to be born into the system,” said Kay of the Bay Area Alliance. “And if they were born into the system, their life would be difficult, they would just end up euthanized at the shelter in the long run.”

The pandemic ripple effect 

The COVID-19 pandemic served as a contributing factor to the overflow, with backyard breeding increasing during quarantine. However, this is not the only factor that shelters and rescue organizations are seeing.  

Dogs require a higher amount of human-animal interaction. When owners worked from home during quarantine, a dog would get used to being with the owner at all times. When the owner returned to in-person work, they weren’t able to give their dog the same amount of attention as before. At times, this resulted in owners not being able to take care of the pet. 

“What we didn’t want was to have the animals get adopted during the pandemic and then once the pandemic was done, to have them come back into the shelter,” James said. “They might have loved the animal – particularly when they’re home and [when] they needed the companionship. They learned that it can be difficult with the dog if you’re gone long, long hours.”

James pointed out that it is slightly different with cats, who are fine being on their own during the day. The problem with cats is the high feral cat population. During kitten season (from spring to summer months), when cat reproduction is at its peak, feral cats are most likely not spayed or neutered. 

One way rescue organizations are fighting to eliminate the overflow crisis is via fostering. Lee pointed out that by fostering, one could save two lives: The life of the animal they foster, as well as the one that takes the foster pet’s spot in the kennel. 

Fostering is “very similar to babysitting your friend’s dog,” Lee said. “You’re providing shelter, love, care and boundaries. If you save multiple per year, that number just keeps multiplying.” 

Additional resources:

Keerthi Eraniyan is a 9th grader at California High School in San Ramon.

Don't miss out on our newest articles, episodes and events!
Sign up for our newsletter