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Animal Shelters In Montana See Increase In Fostering, Adoption

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Great Falls Canine Academy
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An instructer at Great Falls Canine Academy teaches a simple command online in this video taken Oct. 22, 2019.

As Montanans stay at home, many are looking to pets for comfort and companionship. Fostering and adoptions are up and so are online training courses.

Triniti Chavez is the executive director at Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter in Billings, which like many shelters across Montana, has seen people taking in animals, especially fosters, at a higher rate since the coronavirus came into play.

"Across the board, everyone agrees it's that people are lonely and they're looking for companionship, and pets are a safe companionship right now," Chavez said. 

Under the governor’s stay at home order, shelters are cutting back on the time their employees spend on site and telling volunteers to stay home. But adoptions are still happening by appointment.

"We set up a room special for them to meet in. Only one family or one person is allowed in the building at a time. They go into that room, we bring the animal in, give them some time to meet and then completely clean that room afterwards before the next appointment," Chavez said. 

Chavez says her shelter is also encouraging people to be more proactive in their communities to help limit the amount of work she and her colleagues need to do at a time when they’re already stretched thin.

One suggestion? If you find a cat you think might be a stray: "Put a collar around a cat that's made out of paper that says, ‘Hi, do I have a home? I keep coming to this address,'" Chavez said. 

Chavez has been working with groups like the Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Wisconsin to prepare for the pandemic. Sandra Newbury is the program’s director, and says she and others thought it was possible that shelters would fill up as people became sick and couldn’t take care of their pets.

"So far at least, that's not what we're seeing. And that makes us really happy. What we are seeing is that people are making really great plans for their pets as members of their families," Newbury said. 

Newbury says there is some limited evidence that dogs can contract the virus. The World Health Organization says there isn’t evidence that a dog, cat or any pet can transmit the virus.

Still, Newbury encourages anyone with the virus to be careful around their pets, meaning limited physical interaction like snuggling, petting or sleeping in the same bed until the person gets better.

"Whether it's a foster pet or your own pet, if you get sick, it's important to protect your own pet kind of the way you would protect your family member," Newbury said. 

Kelsee Dalton Watts with the Lewis and Clark Humane Society in Helena is thinking more long term. She says donations are down and the shelter had to cancel an annual fundraiser that normally brings in about $70,000.

She says there has been an encouraging bump in adoptions at the shelter, but that her team is also preparing for the adjustment process when new pet owners return to their normal routines.

"We're going to do a lot of counseling to help people navigate that and make sure sure that everybody feels comfortable. Obviously, I think that some will probably end up coming back to the shelter because it won't fit with their everyday lifestyle. But hopefully that's minimal," Dalton Watts said. 

Great Falls Canine Academy owner Gabrielle Plascak is also ready to help new dog owners make a smooth transition. She’s moved her dog training business online for pet owners who are now working from home.

"Have you seen all those, like, fun little memes going around where the people are trying to work from home and their dogs like laying on top of the computer or cross their, you know, shoulders, trying to get attention? These concepts really help teach the dog that when you're needing your own time, they have something to do," Plascak said.

Plascak has a series of assignments that she gives class participants through videos.

Owners like Kayla Hull then post videos of their dogs completing the task.

Hull posted a video of her Italian Mastiff Mabel playing with a homemade puzzle toy, then breaking to go to bed on command.

Plascak says the class has given her a window into how the dogs act at home and helped the owners spot their own mistakes, and those surprise benefits might lead to her incorporating elements into the in-person classes when they start back up.

That could be a ways away. In the meantime, Chavez with the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter says the comfort pets provide will be important as the mental health impacts of social distancing set in.

"I have talked with some colleagues and in the community and they talk about how we've lost a lot of human interaction. But we've also lost, like physical interaction, giving people a hug or shaking their hand or things like that. And you know, animals cross that barrier," Chavez said.