Struggling shelters in the throes of a ‘perfect storm’ 

Across Canada, animal shelters are in crisis, with some on the verge of closing their doors for good. 

While pet adoptions increased significantly during the pandemic and surrenders decreased, now the opposite is true.  

Although surrenders haven’t reached 2019 levels, Barbara Cartwright, CEO of Humane Canada, says it is more overwhelming post pandemic. 

Some blame this on COVID restrictions easing and less working from home, but Sharon Miko, president & CEO of the Ottawa Humane Society, says they’re not seeing a lot of that.  

“People acquired an animal, developed a bond and will figure it out because they’re part of their family,” she says.  

Fueling the crisis is a complicated host of issues. The type of animals arriving at shelters has changed, there’s a vet shortage and the cost of living has skyrocketed. It’s left shelters operating at capacity, with growing waitlists to bring animals in.  

“It’s a perfect storm,” Cartwright says. 

During COVID, shelters couldn’t keep up with the demand for animals. That saw breeding become a lucrative business, and not all were ethical or breeding for genetics. 

“These animals were often in horrible conditions, so they had a poor start to life health-wise, which carries through,” Cartwright says. 

During lockdowns, dogs lacked socialization. They didn’t meet other dogs or people. Training facilities were also closed, and many first time dog owners didn’t know how to train their pet. 

Those cute puppies have now grown up and don’t know how to behave appropriately, leaving owners struggling and surrendering pets with complex needs. 

At shelters, accessing scarce vet care for illnesses and behaviour training means it can take months to get animals ready for adoption. Pre-pandemic, Cartwright says they were generally ready more quickly. And while one or two dogs might have needed behaviour training, now they all do. 

Deanna Thompson, executive director of the Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society, says the lack of socialization has led to more bites. 

My sister-in-law works at the children’s hospital and says the number of dog bites on kids have really gone up.” 

At the BC SPCA, Adrienne McBride, senior director, community animal centres, says when vet care is hard to access, health issues can go unchecked. The vet shortage has seen care costs rise, and left clinics unable to take new patients or see them quickly.  

“The other piece we’re still learning more about is this expectation that their dog would be perfect,” McBride says, as not every dog is well-suited to condo living or with animals and children.   

Nobody could have predicted the current economy, the rise in vet costs or the pandemic, but Miko says in the frenzy to adopt, people often didn’t think through the lifespan of a pandemic pet or do research to ensure a breed matched their lifestyle. Some of those animals are also being surrendered. 

Then there’s all the puppies. Thompson says their shelters are overrun with them, which rarely used to happen. Because people are forced to wait months to get their pets fixed, a lot of “oopsies happen.” 

Some clinics now charge $1,500 for the procedures, so others just can’t afford them. 

In British Columbia, McBride says pre-pandemic, a litter of puppies was so rare, there’d be a line out the door for them, and they’d be  adopted as soon as they became available.  

“Now, it takes a few weeks. There’s not the same onslaught of excitement or applications.” 

The collapse in demand and profits means dogs used for pandemic breeding are being surrendered, including purebred small breeds not typically found in shelters.  

Increased costs have negatively impacted their already marginal living conditions, so they often arrive in rough shape.  

2023 started off well  

Thompson says she started 2023 feeling optimistic, but by March, inflation saw things get progressively worse.  

In addition to fewer adoptions, fostering, volunteerism and donations have also declined as living costs rose. People want to volunteer, but some can’t even afford the gas to get them to the shelter, so additional staff must be hired to provide the care volunteers used to. 

“I feel like I’m standing in a room screaming and nobody’s listening. Shelters across the country are in crisis and we’re just not seeing the response,” Thompson says.  

“We were making headway before the pandemic. Now I feel we’ve gone back 10 years.” 

Longer stays can see animals get worse over time, which weighs heavily on shelter staff. Day after day, they take calls from people looking to surrender animals when there’s no capacity to take them.  

“Saying no to an animal in need is really difficult. We do this work because we love animals and want good outcomes for them,” McBride says.  

“I worry we’ll lose good people because the job is getting harder.” 

Shelters working to help keep pets at home  

Many shelters have or fund food banks, and they’ve seen a massive uptake in use. When struggling families are faced with a $6,000 surgery, Miko says they work to look at different options, be it family and friends or possible payment options.  

McBride believes part of the solution is going back to basics: spay or neuter your pet, and adopt, don’t shop.  

“There’s a hopeful part of me that knows we’ve solved this before and reduced the number of animals coming in. We can do that again and probably faster given what we’ve learned the last 40 years.” 

In addition to creating more spots in veterinary schools and helping to subsidize vet care, Cartwright says all levels of government must start funding the critical community service shelters provide. Without them, it becomes a public health and animal welfare issue, as packs of dogs will roam the streets, spreading disease.  

“All levels of government benefit from humane societies and SPCAs delivering this service, but it’s simply not recognized,” Cartwright says.  

Instead, they’ve ignored animal welfare.  

She says legislation is needed to end sub-standard breeding and puppy mills, something Ontario has recently introduced.  

Miko says municipal regulation can do better in targeting the root causes of problems, including better licensing for animals and pet shops, and better enforcement of care standards.  

“A rabbit overpopulation is one of the biggest animal welfare challenges in Ontario,” she says. “Why are we allowing pet shops to adopt out unsterilized rabbits and people to indiscriminately breed them?” 

McBride lives in Kelowna, where wildfires forced evacuations this past summer. She says in times of emergency, government agencies understand pets are part of a community’s fabric, and that support systems have to be in place for displaced people to care for them.  

“But that doesn’t translate to day-to-day policy making,” she says, pointing to residential tenancy laws that allow landlords to prohibit pets, which, in a housing crisis, leaves some with no choice but to surrender their animals. 

Although it’s a worrying time, Miko says 20 years ago, things were worse — people didn’t see pets the same way and turned a blind eye to what happened in shelters. 

Today, people care and expect more when it comes to animal welfare.  

“That should be our light. Together we can come out of this.” 

Coercive Control Legislation Missing Critical Animal Abuse Link

Legislation currently working its way through Parliament is looking to criminalize coercive control in Canada.  

But it risks doing so without capturing the full scope of the potential crime. 

A private member’s bill, C-332, was introduced by NDP MP Laurel Collins earlier this year. If passed, it will amend the Criminal Code to create an offence for controlling or coercive conduct that has a significant impact on the person towards whom the conduct is directed.  

Those impacts include a fear of violence, a decline in their physical or mental health or a substantial adverse effect on their day-to-day activities. 

However, the bill makes no mention of animals, despite the fact aggressors use animal abuse — and threats of it — to coerce, control, and intimidate women, children, and elders into staying silent about their abuse, preventing them from leaving, or forcing them to return.  

“There’s a direct correlation between animal abuse and perpetrators of intimate partner violence (IPV)  or family violence, using animal abuse to coerce their victims into doing what they want,” says Kerri Thomson, acting manager of Humane Canada’s Criminal Justice System Reform Program.  

“Animals are pawns as much as they are victims in an abusive household.” 

But despite what they endure, Thomson says they aren’t viewed as victims in the eyes of the law.  

“Animals are left out of these conversations when it comes to legislation in Canada because they’re considered pieces of property.” 

Dr. Amy Fitzgerald is a professor of criminology at the University of Windsor whose research focuses on the co-occurrence of animal abuse and domestic violence. She says treating animals as property makes them a great tool for abusers. 

“They know the chances of getting in trouble for threatening or even abusing an animal are minimal. There’s obviously not as much attention given to it, especially when the witnesses are scared to death to report it.” 

Fitzgerald says some also hold the view that if you’re worrying about the animal component of a violent situation you’re not devoting enough time to the human side of things.  

“And yet it’s so interconnected, you can’t disentangle the two,” she says.  

“While I think the proposed legislation is a step in the right direction because coercive control is so problematic, without the animal component, it really does leave a gaping hole.” 

When it comes to their companion animals, 95% of Canadians consider them family. Women, who statistics show are more vulnerable to intimate partner victimization, are often isolated from others in their lives by their abuser, so their animals are not only family, they’re also the only source of comfort and emotional support they have left. 

That leaves animals vulnerable in a violent home, given an abuser’s ability to exploit their bond with the victim. Because of this, many women with companion animals will delay seeking help to escape a violent situation.  

Even the threat of violence towards a companion animal holds power. It’s a common coercive, controlling tactic used by perpetrators to incite fear and gain compliance. 

In a survey of women in 16 domestic violence shelters across Canada by Fitzgerald and her colleagues, 89% of survivors with animals reported their abusive partners had perpetrated at least one form of animal maltreatment, including emotional abuse, threats of harm, and neglect, such as confining the pet for a prolonged period of time or taking them away. The research found survivors clearly recognized this as an intentional move by their abuser, motivated by a desire to upset and control them. 

What’s more, 68% of women said animal abuse factored heavily into their decision to leave, while 56% were reluctant to leave — and delayed doing so — out of concern for their animal’s safety. 

“Unfortunately, there are likely many people who will never leave the abuser because they are so adept at threatening and using the pets as a tool of coercive control,” Fitzgerald says.  

With the rise in pet ownership during the pandemic, 60% of Canadian households now have at least one cat or dog. More companion animals mean coercive control is only going to become a bigger problem, she says. 

“It’s definitely an issue that isn’t going away.” 

And while animals were not included in Bill C-332, during the legislation’s second reading on November 9, Bloc Québécois MP Andréanne Larouche, who is also a member of The Standing Committee on the Status of Women, made reference in her speech to the fact pets are also threatened through coercive control conduct. 

Humane Canada is actively working to have animals included in this legislative conversation, including language that addresses animal sexual assault. Thomson says perpetrators often coerce their partners into engaging in bestiality and record it to use that as a tool to keep them from leaving or reporting abuse.  

As sponsor, Collins says she is open to amendments that strengthen the legislation. However, given the Liberal’s support of it, Thomson is hopeful that Justice Canada will pick it up as a government bill. 

That said, not everyone thinks legislation is the right route to address coercive control.  

Pamela Cross, a feminist lawyer and expert on violence against women, says only about 30% of survivors of intimate partner violence turn to the criminal law when they are subjected to abuse.  

“So it’s not as though by creating a new law we’re suddenly going to eradicate the problem,” she says. 

“Coupled with that is the fact that the criminal law response to gender-based violence historically has been very poor. If we look at things like mandatory charging policies, and the way those have ended up backfiring on the victims they were intended to protect, I have to admit that my opinion about criminal law is a little bit jaded.” 

Cross says coercive control is a very nuanced offense, a pattern of behavior over time — psychological abuse, financial control and social isolation — which is really hard for anybody outside the relationship to see and identify. 

“Everybody is lacking in the knowledge that they need to deal with these cases properly, not just in criminal courts, but in family courts as well. That is a huge piece of the puzzle,” she says.  

“Even if we were to end up deciding that criminalization was a good idea, we’re doing this in the wrong order.” 

Cross says there needs to be investment in infrastructure to ensure women have access to information so they understand that what’s happening to them is wrong and know where to reach out for support and safety. In addition to public awareness campaigns, that investment needs to go towards educating professionals in the field who are dealing with these issues.  

“Then maybe we could talk about criminalization,” she says.  

Thomson doesn’t disagree. She says legislation can potentially serve as another tool in the abuser’s toolbox, used against their victim to make it appear as though they’re trying to coercively control their abuser. That’s why any legislation has to be carefully worded.  

“Unfortunately, I think legislation is the only thing that people will respond to,” Thomson says. “Do I think it’s the cure all? Absolutely not.” 

There also must be ongoing training for all stakeholders in the justice system so they know what coercive control looks like and how legislation can be abused. 

Says Thomson: “I think that will be key.” 

Record animal cruelty sentence makes the case for Violence Link collaboration

In September, the longest sentence ever in Canada for animal abuse was handed down in a Calgary courtroom. 

On the receiving end of the 6.5-year prison term was a 26-year-old woman named Aleeta Raugust, a diagnosed psychopath who tortured nine cats, killed seven of them, and admitted to having thoughts of harming humans. 

She pled guilty to nine counts of animal cruelty. 

Calgary Police Sgt. Dennis Smithson says the case is the perfect example of why violence link training is so important and warrants investment by police forces and governments.  

Humane Canada CEO Barb Cartwright says it demonstrates what can be done when agencies and properly trained experts work together, and why it’s worth replicating across the country. 


Between 2018 and 2023, Raugust bought cats online with the intention of doing them harm. She recorded videos of herself torturing “two or three” to rewatch  – something that gave her pleasure. 

She left the cats’ bodies in public places so she could observe people’s reactions upon finding them.

A psychological assessment found she had little remorse for what she’d done. 

Raugust also admitted to having violent fantasies about hurting people when angered and told police she intended to burn down her former apartment building

A Case Study of the Violence Link 

Animal abuse often directly correlates to interpersonal violence. Research shows that violence towards people and violence towards animals are part of a larger pattern of crimes that co-exist, known as the violence link.  

With Raugust, a team of Calgary Police and Calgary Humane Society officers, crown prosecutors and a forensic veterinarian – all trained to recognize the violence link – worked together to investigate and build the case. 

Although it’s not a formalized team, they work closely and regularly communicate, which has kept concerning patterns of behaviour and cases from falling through the cracks. The trust and rapport they’ve built has bypassed the hesitancy police agencies often have around sharing information.  

Their efforts saw Raugust receive the stiffest penalty on record for an animal abuse case in this country – doubling the previous sentencing threshold. 

Smithson says since the team formed a decade ago, there have been more charges and convictions, and they’ve repeatedly set and broken the Canadian record for the length of sentences.  

“We’re putting people away for a number of years now as opposed to just fines and warnings not to do it again,” he says of past sentencing practices.  

Brad Nichols, the Calgary Humane Society’s director of operations and enforcement, says although the pace of change hasn’t been as fast as many would like, it wasn’t long ago that a lifetime prohibition on owning animals was unheard of. 

“Seeing punitive and preventative measures put in place more often, and judges viewing animals as victims that can suffer, it’s very satisfying,” he says.  

Smithson and the team created a violence link training program that more than 1,000 people across Alberta have gone through – everyone from police and peace officers to dispatchers, analysts, record keepers, veterinarians, and women’s shelters staff.  

About half of them are in Calgary, including nearly 400 police officers, and the force’s domestic conflict and domestic violence risk assessment teams. 

The lead investigator in Raugust received the training the same month she was put on the case. Bylaw officers had been collecting dead cats in the same lane for several weeks, the assumption being they’d been hit by cars. But when Sgt. Alanna Sherwood started investigating, she felt there were too many in the same area for that to be the case.  

“She knew right away there was a lot more to this and started digging,” Smithson says. 

Sherwood involved Dr. Margaret Doyle, a forensic veterinarian, to conduct necropsies on the cats to determine what happened to them. Coupled with the Humane Society’s resources, the team assembled a comprehensive file for the Crown prosecutor, who was also well-versed in the violence link and able to explain it to the court.  

“When you put all those pieces together, it’s hard to say no to putting somebody in jail,” Smithson says.  

“Like any other file that takes multiple units and multiple agencies, these cases are no different.” 

However, police agencies have long viewed animal abuse files as a bylaw matter for humane societies to handle. 

“What’s changing is that we’ve recognized that we need everybody involved to do these things correctly,” Smithson says. 

Nichols agrees.  

“If we didn’t have access to the police and they didn’t have access to us, we’d both have incomplete toolkits,” he says.  

“We wouldn’t know what we don’t know, which is always a problem.” 

However, aside from the Edmonton Police’s animal cruelty unit, few police agencies or academies provide training on the violence link. Smithson says there’s a lack of recognition of how intertwined it is in daily life. 

And yet, it’s very clear in the data. Smithson said he was “quite shocked” when the team looked at individuals charged with intentional animal abuse over an 18-month period. They found 93% of them had been charged or investigated for domestic violence, and within that group, 85% were involved in an average of four other criminal code offenses.  

Nichols says they didn’t realize how unique their team was until they started presenting at conferences and through the National Centre for the Prosecution of Animal Cruelty. 

“It became pretty evident not a lot of jurisdictions were collaborating like this.”  

Their unit has shown what can be accomplished and enhanced awareness of the fact animal abuse files often have human victims as well. 

Smithson wants to see formalized violence link training in every police agency and academy. 

“Every time I present to members across Canada, there’s always an officer who comes to me after and says I wish I hadn’t known this, that somebody had taught me this right from day one,” he says. 

National Strategy Needed

Humane Canada and its Canadian Violence Link Coalition partners are working to increase the focus on and recognition of the connection in legislation and policy, and operationally across law enforcement and the criminal and social justice systems. 

Cartwright advocates for a national strategy to ensure police and animal protection officers are trained to recognize the link, as well as judges, and prosecutors. There’s also a need for meaningful rehabilitation so offenders don’t escalate upon release. In the Raugust case, even the judge expressed concerns about the day she gets out of jail

Ideally, Cartwright says Canada would have a government-funded violence link centre to foster a unified effort across sectors and agencies, to provide training, as well as education on collecting animal abuse crime data across the country. 

In its final report1, the Mass Casualty Commission into Canada’s worst mass shooting recommended “all individuals and entities engaged in data-collection research and policy development, including law enforcement agencies and other authorities, collect data on…whether the perpetrator had a history of harming or killing pets or animals, or threatening to do so.” 

The federal government has yet to act on the recommendations. 

Cartwright says while Raugust is a landmark case, it’s just the latest wake-up call to governments to invest in violence link training.  

“We can’t keep dealing with this in a piecemeal way,” she says.  

“We’ve had some successes here, so how do we expand this across the country?” 

Smithson hopes statistics showing the scope of the problem and the team’s impact help reinforce why recognition of the link is so important. 

“Data drives budgets, data drives the use of resources,” he says. 

What do human and animal abuse have in common?

Have you heard that Humane Canada is presenting Canada’s first national conference on the violence link in December?

If you aren’t familiar with the violence link, it’s the proven link between violence against animals and violence against people. This can manifest in many ways, including a pet being harmed or killed after a woman leaves an abusive relationship or a serial killer practicing his or her abuse on animals before moving on to human beings. Over the last decade, this pattern has come to be known as the violence link.

Read more “What do human and animal abuse have in common?”