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By Kim Kavin
August 12, 2020 at 9:00 a.m. EDT

The Cabbage Patch Kids craze of 1985. The Tickle Me Elmo mania of 1996. To understand what has been happening with the sales and adoptions of real, live puppies and dogs during the novel coronavirus pandemic, you have to think back to buying frenzies that consumed the consciousness of the entire nation.

“Within my circle of friends, there are at least five people who have gotten a puppy,” says Tess Karaskevicus, a schoolteacher from Springfield, Va., whose boxer puppy, Koda, joined her family on May 28. “It’s been great. We’ve been having friends come over and play with the puppy while we socially distance. They’re getting a puppy dosage of happiness. It’s been really amazing.”

What began in mid-March as a sudden surge in demand had, as of mid-July, become a bona fide sales boom. Shelters, nonprofit rescues, private breeders, pet stores — all reported more consumer demand than there were dogs and puppies to fill it. Some rescues were reporting dozens of applications for individual dogs. Some breeders were reporting waiting lists well into 2021. Americans kept trying to fill voids with canine companions, either because they were stuck working from home with children who needed something to do, or had no work and lots of free time, or felt lonely with no way to socialize.

At the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, a nonprofit shelter, adoptions were double their usual rate in late June, with 10 or 13 adoptions a day, president Madeline Bernstein said. A waiting list had formed for certain types of dogs, and for puppies in general, because so few were left in the shelter.“My inventory is low,” she said. “All the shelters are in the same boat, but people still want to adopt.” Bernstein saw the continuing demand as a second wave happening within the coronavirus crisis. The first wave, when the virus initially struck, consisted of people fostering and adopting in part to help clear the shelters before they had to shut down. Months later, she said, a different type of adopter has come forward“.  There’s been a realization that this is going to go on for a while,” she said. “People will not be getting on planes to travel. They’re going to plan staycations or driving vacations that are more amenable to pets. So they’ll adopt now. This is like a second group of people on a whole other timeline.”

On the other side of the country, at Animal Care Centers of NYC, about 25 percent of the people who agreed to take in foster dogs temporarily at the start of the pandemic had adopted them permanently by late June. Usually, that foster-turned-adopter figure is 10 percent, said Katy Hansen, director of marketing and communications. And the New York shelter was seeing lower-than-usual return rates on adopted dogs, she added. More adoptions may be working out, she said, in part because of the way the virus forced shelters to change their processes. There have always been pre-adoption forms to fill out in most parts of the country, along with things like home checks and reference calls to verify adopters’ information — some adopters have joked in the past that it’s easier to bring home a child than a dog. Now there are more virtual touch points added to the pre-adoption process.
“There’s so much more interaction with the shelters before the adoption,” Hansen said. “You’re getting people who have found the animal on your website or on social media, have seen the video, read the bio, sent the email, asked for more information, then we do the virtual meet-and-greet — there’s a lot more interaction before the adoption happens. It shows that the person is really invested.”

Breeders, too, reported unusual levels of business continuing into midsummer. Hank Grosenbacher, a breeder of Pembroke Welsh corgis who owns the Heartland Sales auction in Cabool, Mo. — where commercially licensed breeders often buy and sell dogs as breeding stock — said that as of late June, some breeders were investing more heavily than usual in puppies they could raise into breeding-age dogs. Other breeders were reporting pet stores buying full litters of puppies that hadn’t been born yet, putting the money down in advance just to try to keep inventory in the pipeline going forward. “That means everyone thinks this boom will go on at least another 60 to 90 days,” Grosenbacher said. “For most breeders, business is the best it’s ever been.”

Joe Watson, CEO of Petland, which operates dozens of pet stores in the United States, says demand was so strong in May and June that the breeders the company usually works with saw a flood of new buyers for puppies. “Demand for all pets were strong in May and June and continues thus far,” Watson said in mid-July. Many consumers caught in the demand crunch have found themselves navigating the shopper’s equivalent of an obstacle course to bring home a dog from any type of source.

Natalia Neerdaels, a scientist from Sea Ranch, Calif., tried for weeks to adopt a dog from a rescue group while she and her husband, who is in the tech business, were both working from home alongside their 11-year-old daughter. Neerdaels said she contacted nonprofit groups from the San Francisco Bay area all the way up the West Coast to Oregon. All of them were overwhelmed with applications. “The majority, when I got a reply, said they just didn’t have enough dogs,” Neerdaels said. “They said: ‘You’re too late. Don’t even leave your name.’”  She ended up paying $1,375 for a toy poodle puppy on Craigslist. The family named her Cala Lili. “She’s now 11 weeks old, and she’s wonderful,” Neerdaels said. “We are very happy. I had wanted to help a dog, to rescue, but it wasn’t possible.”

Ginger Mitchell of Grand Junction, Colo., also came up empty in her initial search. She could find larger dogs in her state’s shelters, but the 68-year-old retiree didn’t want a German shepherd or pit bull. She turned to the Internet, too, and found a 3-year-old, 15-pound terrier mix named Sammy on the PetSmart Charities website, which features adoptable dogs from around the country. Sammy was in San Antonio with a nonprofit organization called CareTX Rescue. “This was in early April, and the airlines were starting to shut everything down,” Mitchell said. “You couldn’t ship a dog on a flight that required a connection. It had to be nonstop. There were no nonstops from San Antonio, so these lovely people drove Sammy and some other dogs about five hours to Dallas-Fort Worth. They were supposed to ship him here to Grand Junction on a direct flight from there, but both flights were canceled. We ended up having to drive four hours over the mountains to Denver. It was in the 20s, and there was snow on the ground. It took four attempts to get him to us.” Sammy was traumatized from the journey, Mitchell said, but soon settled in with her and her husband, who is also retired “We had a lot of time to spend with him and bond,” she said. “If not for the pandemic, we’d probably be traveling.”

Karaskevicus, who got her boxer puppy from a breeder her family knew, said her only worry now is about what will happen with the upcoming school year. Both she and her husband are teachers, and if schools reopen, she wants Koda to be ready for a new daily routine without any people at home. “I thought we should pretend to go to work every day in the garage or she’d have separation anxiety,” Karaskevicus said. “So we crate trained her, just for like 45 minutes a day, we’ll go in the front yard or grocery shopping just so she can get used to us being away.”

Shelter directors, too, are wondering what will happen as Americans start returning to school and work. Bernstein, in Los Angeles, said there could be an increase in dogs being abandoned, or the dogs may have bonded so much with their families that they’ll keep them forever. Like so many things with the coronavirus, the territory is uncharted. Just as nobody predicted that the start of a pandemic would lead to a buying spree for pet dogs, nobody is quite sure what the end of a pandemic will mean for the pups either. “While we have general ideas and can make good guesses, we really don’t know how this will turn out,” Bernstein said. “Nobody has ever done this before.”