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Americans adopted millions of dogs during the pandemic. Now what do we do with them?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/7/2022 Jacob Bogage

Americans face a moment of reckoning with their pandemic pups — and the money they spend on them.

Apollo, a black Labrador in Silver City, N.M., is complicating his owner’s moving budget with his voracious appetite. In Los Angeles, Zuri the Chihuahua mix’s surprise bee allergy has her mom fretting over more unexpected medical bills. In Sacramento, Cowboy the labradoodle’s parents are trying to train him out of his shoe-chewing separation anxiety.

With the country thrust into uncertainty by the omicron variant of the coronavirus, the millions of Americans who welcomed pets into their homes since the first shutdowns in March 2020 are facing shocks to their household budgets and logistical challenges as they try to predict the course of the pandemic and make preparations to return to work and social activities in person.

More than 23 million American households — nearly 1 in 5 nationwide — adopted a pet during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Even President Biden adopted a new dog, Commander.

And many dog owners have spent the pandemic pampering those pooches. Americans spent $21.4 billion on nonmedical pet products through November, plus another $28.4 billion on dog food, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Rover, a gig-economy platform that focuses on overnight boarding and dog-sitting, reported a record $157.1 million in revenue for the quarter ending Sept. 30.

Now some puppy parents are facing as much as thousands of dollars in additional costs as they prepare to return to life in person.

With many doggy day cares and boarding centers nationwide reporting months-long waiting lists — and newly adopted pets often lacking the socialization for boarding — pandemic pet owners are appealing to families, friends and businesses to ensure their dogs are living their best lives, or at least not spending the day alone. Veterinary practices report being slammed with appointment requests. Vet emergency rooms are warning of longer wait times.

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In a pandemic, these pups have made all the difference

Gig-economy dog-walking and boarding platforms Wag and Rover say they have received waves of new customers as different parts of the country emerge from social distancing. So far, Wag CEO Garrett Smallwood said, spending and memberships have followed red state/blue state lines, with Republican-leaning states more likely to open up faster. The newest customers are about 20 percent more active on Wag than customers pre-pandemic, Smallwood told The Washington Post.

“If you had your pet before the pandemic, you had a routine, you knew what you were doing,” Smallwood said. “Whereas, if you adopted your pup during the pandemic, you’re building this routine together now, and you’re learning about leaving your dog alone.”

Danielle Diaz, a county government employee in Silver City, N.M., adopted Apollo, a black Labrador retriever, as a birthday present to herself in July 2020. He was 4 weeks old and he’d been weaned too early. Diaz fed him a paste of puppy food mushed with water when she first got him home, because he wasn’t old enough to eat dry kibble.

Nearly a year and a half later, Apollo is 100 pounds. He eats 12 cups of dog food per day, a $45 40-pound bag of dog food every three weeks.

One-year-old Apollo after a game of kickball last May in Silver City, N.M. © Danielle Diaz/Danielle Diaz One-year-old Apollo after a game of kickball last May in Silver City, N.M.

Adopting Apollo cost $80, Diaz said, an easy investment for a loyal companion. She’s spent probably thousands of dollars more on him since. Day care costs $400 a month. Between food, toys, treats and vet bills — he’s had multiple infections after eating deer and rabbit droppings in the yard — “pretty much all my money, my whole paycheck, goes to him,” Diaz said.

The additional expenses have complicated plans to save for a house with her boyfriend when Diaz finishes graduate school in a couple of years.

“I’ve never sat down and done the math, because I don’t want to know how much it is in total,” Diaz said.

Many dog owners report spending the money saved during the pandemic — from not commuting, going out to eat or taking vacations — on their pets.

Fauci is my dog

Barkbox, the subscription treat and toy service, saw membership increase by 39 percent compared with the same period a year ago, the company told The Post, and revenue increased by 130 percent between April and September compared with the same period in 2020.

Siobhan McKenna, a high school teacher in the Boston suburbs, found a day care run out of the home of a veterinary technician for her Australian shepherd, Smokey, when she returned to in-person work at the start of the 2020 school year.

Compared with other day cares with their own storefronts, this one is much cheaper, she said, but she and her boyfriend still felt they had to cut things out of their budget.

Smokey, an Australian shepherd, stays on alert during owner Siobhan McKenna’s first camping trip last summer to Nickerson State Park in Brewster, Mass. © Siobhan McKenna Smokey, an Australian shepherd, stays on alert during owner Siobhan McKenna’s first camping trip last summer to Nickerson State Park in Brewster, Mass.

They don’t go out for date nights as much, both to practice caution during the pandemic and to save money for Smokey. McKenna and her boyfriend are cooking at home more, rather than grabbing Chipotle on a weeknight or buying lunch.

McKenna said she hopes to get a dog walker for Smokey this year on the days when her pup does not go to day care. Lately, though, she’s more interested in taking training classes with Smokey for more mental stimulation and to ease separation anxiety.

Others are easing their dogs back in to the day-care routine — and that can be costly.

Dog days

Amy Mercadante, the owner of Affectionate Pet Care, a boarding, grooming and day-care facility in Fairfax City, Va., said some regulars kept up their monthly membership payments during the pandemic, even though they weren’t bringing in their dogs, so their pups could return to a familiar routine when their humans return to work.

In Los Angeles, Janet Kim, who owns the day care Oh Hello Dog, turned her “introduction to day care” training course — basically, How To Be A Dog 101 — into a break-even business and a feeder program to build up her day-care client roster. Her new dog evaluation schedule has a four-week waiting list.

‘Are all vet appointments like that?’

Zuri the 1-year-old Chihuahua mix’s surprise bee allergy upended owner Cheyenne Matthews-Hoffman’s budget the same week of the pup’s adoption, when she swallowed a bee in the backyard.

Within moments, Zuri’s eyes fluttered and she passed out — requiring a trip to the nearest veterinary emergency room. Matthews-Hoffman handed her seven-pound puppy to a vet and bawled, then walked to a nearby Target to buy treats and dog toys.

Zuri emerged two hours later with a healthy strut and a wagging tail. Matthews-Hoffman, a digital content creator in Los Angeles, came out with a $600 bill, which she paid in two installments because she’d already spent hundreds of dollars preparing her home for Zuri’s adoption.

Zuri chews on a stick, her favorite hobby, in Oakland, Calif., with no bees in sight. © Cheyenne Matthews-Hoffman/Cheyenne Matthews-Hoffman Zuri chews on a stick, her favorite hobby, in Oakland, Calif., with no bees in sight.

“After I paid that bill, I thought, I have to find a vet that’s not that expensive,” she said. “And was this expensive because it was an emergency, or are all vet appointments like that? I didn’t do any research on how much emergency vet appointments cost. And then I had to research how to get rid of bees in your backyard.”

The lofty cost of such care is not uncommon for people who adopted pets during the pandemic, said Rebecca Axelrad, who runs the nonprofit Buddy’s Healing Paws, which raises money to help pay for emergency veterinary treatment.

Dog owners can budget costs in advance for food and toys and routine vet bills, but that’s harder for emergency medical expenses.

The voices we make when we pretend our dogs can talk

The costs can leave pet owners in an unthinkable position: scrape together the money to care for a suffering animal, or euthanize a creature many people view as part of the family.

“During the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me saying they got a dog or cat during the pandemic but then they lost their job, or their spouse lost their job, or money got tight,” Axelrad said.

Since August 2020, Buddy’s has disbursed more than $20,000, Axelrad said, raising it through online donor campaigns and auctions.

For Matthews-Hoffman, it means saving more. “I’ve kept the mind-set, to make me feel a little bit better, I always think she’s going to exceed however much I’m saving for her, so maybe I should save a little more,” Matthews-Hoffman said about her budget for Zuri. “You literally never know what could happen. What if she’s allergic to something else?”

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Changing schedules and separation anxiety

Cowboy the labradoodle is a professional sleeper. He cuddles up to his toys while his human mom, Caroline Cirrincione, works from home outside Sacramento. He sleeps in the car on the way to and from his monthly grooming session. He squeezes in between Cirrincione and her boyfriend on the bed when they go to sleep at night.

He also chews on her shoes.

“All of my Christmas gifts this year were shoes,” Cirrincione said. “I had to do a big overhaul after he ate a few pairs.”

As Cirrincione, who works in advocacy around the California state legislature, spends more time outside the house for work, an anxious Cowboy has fallen into some destructive habits.

He’s learned how to open the closet door to access shoes. Locked in a bedroom once while Cirrincione tried to get him accustomed to being alone, he chewed a hole in the door.

“Everyone says he has the purest intentions, but he’s this massive dog with no boundaries and he chews your shoes,” Cirrincione said. “He knows when he’s done it and it’s wrong, and we’ll look at each other and he’ll look at me like, ‘I’m so sorry I did this.’”

Cowboy the labradoodle sits at his front door in Roseville, Calif. His owner, Caroline Cirrincione, is experimenting with sending him to day care as she spends more time outside the house for work. © Caroline Cirrincione/Caroline Cirrincione Cowboy the labradoodle sits at his front door in Roseville, Calif. His owner, Caroline Cirrincione, is experimenting with sending him to day care as she spends more time outside the house for work.

Cirrincione and her boyfriend are experimenting with sending Cowboy to day care as they venture out of the house after getting their vaccine booster shots. They’ve found one that fits their budget but can only send Cowboy a couple of days a week. In the meantime, they’re making more of an effort to bring Cowboy with them on vacation, out to eat or when visiting with friends to cut down on his chances to gnaw on their footwear.

Caitlin Mahoney, a musician and office worker in New York, has leaned on family, neighbors and a hired dog walker for her 2-year-old Chihuahua-cattle dog mix Annie.

Mahoney is fully vaccinated and got a booster shot before Thanksgiving. She is starting to play shows again in New York and thinking about scheduling tour dates — which would probably not be compatible with a canine’s schedule.

In the new year, she is moving to Los Angeles and booking West Coast tour dates for her forthcoming album. She’s in the market for a new dog-sitter.

“It’s been a great joy,” she said, “to learn how to share Annie.”

Annie sleeps in her favorite spot by the window in Brooklyn. From this perch in owner Caitlin Mahoney’s garden apartment, she can watch squirrels, other dogs and people pass by. © Caitlin Mahoney/Caitlin Mahoney Annie sleeps in her favorite spot by the window in Brooklyn. From this perch in owner Caitlin Mahoney’s garden apartment, she can watch squirrels, other dogs and people pass by.

Best friend and business inspiration

For Sekayi and Farai Fraser of North Potomac, Md., their 20-month-old black Lab, Brock, went from the center of their family’s affection — complete with a raincoat and a Christmas tracksuit that he refuses to wear — to the hub of a growing neighborhood business.

After a family friend offered Sekayi, 16, and Farai, 14, a few dollars to look after their dog for a night, the boys founded “Potomac Pooch Pals.”

They charge $35 a night to check in on a dog at another home or to bring a dog over to spend the night with Brock. The dogs end up tuckering each other out, said the boys’ mother, Mondi Kumbula-Fraser. The extra exercise means Brock needs fewer sessions at day care.

Before the emergence of the omicron variant, Sekayi and Farai were preparing for an uptick in business around Christmastime. By the start of December, they already had four reservations. Then, their booking calendar — and plans to expand their business — were scrambled by increasing infection rates. Both boys are vaccinated, but while omicron rages, taking new clients is difficult. Kumbula-Fraser is wary of other dog owners coming into their home to drop off their pups and of her sons going into others’ homes.

The boys are making plans to sign up new clients as soon as coronavirus cases in their community drop again. They’ve recruited friends from school and around the neighborhood to market their services and walk dogs, too. A cousin promised to advertise in her neighborhood.

There’s one condition, Sekayi said: The dogs must be compatible with Brock. “I don’t want to take any clients that don’t get along with priority numero uno.”

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