THE PEOPLE IN OHIO wanted the money at the stroke of midnight. It was June 2020 and Sarah Stuart of Cohasset had already contacted at least 10 dog breeders, from Martha’s Vineyard to Pennsylvania. Some said they might have puppies available in the autumn; some had no puppies, end of story. Finally, Stuart discovered a place outside Akron that reared Welsh terriers, a 20-ish-pound, non-shedding breed with a professorial beard, just like Riley, her beloved, recently deceased wheaten terrier. Stuart, a harp instructor (and, full disclosure, my sister-in-law), joined an e-mail list that would notify her of the next litter of $1,900 dogs.
A few weeks later, the breeders explained the next step via a group e-mail: they’d begin taking deposits at midnight the next Friday, and the half-dozen or so puppies would go to whoever PayPal’d them first. Stuart and her husband stayed awake until the appointed hour. Nobody else is going to do this, she thought. As 11:59 p.m. rolled into Saturday, they clicked a button and headed to fitful sleep.
At 6 a.m., three expectant children tumbled into their bedroom asking if they were getting a dog. Stuart checked her phone and saw an e-mail from the breeder time stamped 2:27 a.m. The subject line: “I’m So Sorry!”
It was a big day for puppy deposits, the message went on, and the midnight money transfers arrived milliseconds apart: “[We] used the date you were added to our contact list as the tiebreaker.” A refund was coming to Stuart. Ten days later, so did another e-mail: The price of a puppy was going up by $800, to $2,700.
For a culture conditioned to desire dogs, the stay-at-home orders that accompanied COVID-19 might as well have been Pavlov ringing a bell. Americans added more than 10 million dogs to their families in 2020, according to the market research publisher Packaged Facts, for an estimated total of 96 million. Spurred by remote work for those who could, kids schooling from home, and a longing for companionship in an upended world, the great dog rush left rescue organizations and shelters short on animals just as a surge of eager adopters and foster families flooded their phone lines. Breeders were similarly inundated, and some saw opportunities to wring out a few extra bucks: Prices for puppies rose 36 percent, according to the breeder listings site PuppySpot. The pandemic also provided opportunities to exploit man’s desperation for a best friend with price gouging, thievery, and scammers capitalizing on in-demand breeds.
In retrospect, getting a dog was a predictable response to the pandemic, right up there with hoarding toilet paper. Now we’re left wondering if a post-lockdown world will result in a legion of neurotic dogs left unhappily at home, and whether some people will abandon them altogether. Wherever our more than 11,000-year relationship with Canis familiaris goes next, the last 15 months have been a wild ride — one that shows few signs of slowing down.
WHILE EN ROUTE from Montrose, Colorado, to Atlanta, Sue Murphy texts me four pictures of Leo lolling and napping in an airport lounge. “He loves a good belly rub,” she writes. Leo is a weeks-old, s’mores-hued Bernedoodle — part poodle, part Bernese mountain dog — traveling across time zones in a carrier at Murphy’s feet. Murphy is an effervescent grandmother of three and, for the last half decade, a puppy nanny: For the price of her travel plus a fee (which she won’t disclose), she’ll fly your puppy from breeders in the Western Rockies and elsewhere, to Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Miami, or any other corner of the country.
Murphy used to transport puppies about eight times a month. But with COVID stoking an appetite for dogs and diminishing the hunger to travel, it’s been more like 13 trips a month, with usually at least one bound for Logan Airport. She pings expectant puppy parents throughout her journeys, building excitement for the furry deliveries routinely priced at $4,000 or more, not including travel costs. “I just want to make this last part easy and joyous,” Murphy tells me. “Some of these people have been waiting a year, or even two, for this moment.”
A pandemic puppy, delivered by pet nanny or otherwise, would have been one dog too many for me. I already have Biff, a 14-year-old breeder-bought English bulldog, and Mabel, a 7-year-old adopted pit bull mix. I love them so much I have their likenesses tattooed on my thigh in the style of the farmers from Grant Wood’s American Gothic. (My daughter is too young to wonder why I don’t have one of her.) But by the time COVID’s darkest clouds parted in the spring, I saw pandemic puppies everywhere: Teddy, the pint-sized Lakeland terrier my sister-in-law eventually found at a breeder in northwestern Pennsylvania; the rescued Catahoula leopard dog leashed to an old classmate walking by my house in Connecticut (“It’s the state dog of Louisiana!” she shouted); and my next-door neighbor Brody, a Bernedoodle I’ve watched grow from a caramel puff into a dead ringer for Fozzie Bear.
We want dogs for familiar reasons: to ease our loneliness, for screen-free diversions, as a practice run for children, because they’re adorable, because their love is uncomplicated. And when COVID-19 first hit, it removed the usual excuses for delays — too much time in the office, not enough for housebreaking. “All the puppy training books tell you to take the week off,” says Aubrey Sperry, a West Roxbury dog trainer who got a standard poodle during the pandemic. “Remember when we thought this was only going to last two weeks?”
Dogs — generally bigger, hungrier, and needier than other pets — account for the greatest chunk of the pet industry, an economic sector that ballooned between economic downturns, from $48.3 billion in 2010 to $97.1 billion in 2019, according to the American Pet Products Association. Last spring, however, the industry’s recession-resistant reputation came into question. Travel prohibitions and remote work mandates hobbled dog walkers, boarding facilities, trainers, and other non-veterinary, in-person services; food supply chains lagged while customers panic-bought kibble; and sales of pet goods ultimately dropped 20 percent in March and April 2020. Meanwhile, like other shelters around the country, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals braced for a flood of animal surrenders to its three shelters.
But those early weeks turned out to be a blip. By year’s end, pet spending had reached $103.6 billion — an all-time high — and animal shelters around the country took in about 24 percent fewer animals than in 2019. At the MSPCA, year-over-year intake fell 28.5 percent, says Michael Keiley, director of adoption centers and programs. Yet the drop in MSPCA adoptions — from 5,654 in 2019 to 4,052 in 2020 — obscures the swell of interest that tops anything Keiley has seen in 27 years of working in animal shelters. Virtually every dog available received hundreds of inquiries. “Non-dogs too,” Keiley says. “We [publicized] a tarantula, a tortoise, and an alpaca, and they [each] received thousands of responses.” (During the pandemic, “A lot of existing homeowners sort of rounded out their menageries,” says David Sprinkle, research director of Packaged Facts.)
Dog breeders faced surges of their own. Last year PuppySpot saw sales leads for puppies increase more than 40 percent, and most prospective pet purchasers were looking for golden retrievers, Labradors, and all sorts of hypoallergenic doodles. The average price of a Bernedoodle like my neighbor Brody rose 57 percent, to $5,089. (Jonathan Cherins, PuppySpot’s CEO, says breeders listed on PuppySpot are vetted by American Humane and the American Kennel Club, that the site does not work with puppy mills, and that it discouraged its network from breeding extra volume to meet elevated demands.)
Bernedoodles seem to be having a moment, and fielding customers’ inquiries is practically a full-time job. At her Ashby-based business Massachusetts Bernedoodles, where puppies start at $4,800, owner Kimberly Clinton has seen a pre-pandemic average of 10 daily inquiries grow to as many as 100 a day, coming from as far away as London. Tammie Rendon, owner of Rocky Mountain Bernedoodles in Colorado — the point of origin for Atlanta-bound Leo, as well as 10 Bernedoodles now in Boston, Rendon says — has 400 deposits on hand for puppies that cost at least $3,750. Her wait list has grown to two years. Rendon also has 17 clients waiting for “turnkey” puppies that will be delivered to their new homes crate-trained and housebroken. The clientele for them tends to have more money than time, like doctors, CEOs, a cannabis entrepreneur — ”the best turnkey buyer I’ve ever had,” Rendon says — and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. Prices for Rendon’s turnkey puppies start at $20,500.
Back in Colorado and prepping for four more cross-country trips in the next eight days, Sue Murphy’s mind turns back to Leo. The moment she stepped into the arrival area in Atlanta, she spotted the man and woman who would take Leo home; the anticipation was written all over their faces. Before leaving, she snapped a photo: The new mom and dad were beaming, cradling their precious cargo like a baby.
IF YOU’VE LOOKED online for a dog lately, whiskered opportunism likely peered back at you. “I don’t think it’s possible to do an Internet search for a pet without coming across a scam ad,” says Steve Baker, an international investigations specialist for the Better Business Bureau, his Australian shepherd periodically barking in the background.
The Better Business Bureau estimated there were 4,300 pet fraud complaints last year, more than twice the tally of 2019 and almost five times as many as in 2017. Would-be customers across the country collectively lost as much as $3.1 million last year. Fraudulent pet websites are surprisingly subtle, Baker says: text lifted from legitimate breeders with new contact information swapped in, for example, and photos of fresh-faced Yorkies and French bulldogs altered to evade reverse-image searches. He’s heard some scammers have recently demanded extra fees for COVID-19 pet vaccines, a new twist for a vaccine they couldn’t possibly get. “The pandemic was a perfect thing for the scammers,” Baker says. “COVID restrictions gave an excuse for why people can’t see the pet in advance, there was a massive demand, legitimate breeders didn’t have enough puppies, and the crooks really capitalized on that.”
Whatever good intentions stirred it up, our fever for pandemic puppies has come with side effects. In December, burglars burrowed through the wall of a New Haven pet store and stole five puppies reportedly worth $23,400. Last June in Toronto, 38 dead puppies were among roughly 500 French bulldogs found aboard a Ukrainian airline. In Hollywood in February, Lady Gaga’s dog walker was shot in the chest by thieves who then stole two of her French bulldogs — not because they belonged to her, but because Frenchies are so expensive. She posted a $500,000 reward and the dogs were recovered. Five people have been charged; the dog walker survived.
And even if you can get a Frenchie through legitimate means — they can cost up to $10,000 — expect to spend another ten grand on veterinary care over the life of the dog, says Dr. Virginia Sinnott-Stutzman, senior staff veterinarian in emergency and critical care at the MSPCA Angell Animal Medical Center. Snub-nosed, smooshed-faced bulldogs are especially prone to respiratory issues, skin conditions, and back problems, all made worse through a new crop of breeders capitalizing on the pandemic demand instead of raising healthy dogs. “With the pressure to breed them,” she says, “not everyone is making sure those issues are bred out.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Sinnott-Stutzman estimates that 60 percent of her puppy patients have come from puppy mills, unsavory operations that force dogs to overbreed without regard for cleanliness or animal welfare. Puppy mill dogs often bring the telltale diseases of stress and overcrowding, like kennel cough and parvo, a gastrointestinal disease that’s often fatal if untreated. Sinnott-Stutzman says she can understand why eager clients would turn to puppy mills, whether knowingly or not. “I see both sides. You call a respected breeder, you find out there’s a 13-month wait, and you think, I’m really lonely and I’d really like to get something sooner,” Sinnott-Stutzman says. “But the reality is we’re seeing a lot of puppies in the emergency room.”
All over, veterinary offices are straining from pandemic safety protocols, staffing shortages, and an overflow of new patients. Banfield Pet Hospital, a 1,000-hospital network of veterinary clinics, reported a 9 percent increase in juvenile dog patients and half a million more overall pet visits in 2020. Banfield also reported significant increases in pets’ skin allergies and, just like many pet owners, pandemic weight gain. Though COVID vaccinations are slowly bringing back in-person interactions, longer wait times and appointment scarcity are still commonplace.
It’s not all grim or a grind. Sinnott-Stutzman says she’s tended to more “sweet emergencies” than usual: a new pet owner who needs help removing a tick for the first time, another who barrels to the clinic at 2 a.m. because their otherwise-healthy puppy threw up once. But COVID took an emotional toll from which pet owners and veterinarians alike have struggled to recover. “People would literally throw their credit cards at us and say, ‘Fix them, I don’t care what it costs,’ but their pet’s organs are failing,” she says. “We were at the end of what medicine could do, but when you’re going to become lonely again, it’s hard to face the end.”
KERRY McNALLY TOLD HERSELF that once she finished her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Boston, she’d stop her digital daydreaming on Petfinder.com and get the golden retriever she’d wanted for years. “Graduation happened to be in May 2020,” says McNally, a biologist who works with aquatic animals. Like much of the world, McNally came up empty in her puppy search. Even the golden mixes in shelters were scooped up quickly, and breeders had two-year wait lists.
But as McNally pressed on, she thought of Morgan. Morgan, a golden retriever puppy when McNally was in high school, lived for 13 years. “Losing her was the hardest loss, because she was there for me through the worst things in my life,” McNally says. When her parents died, Morgan was her comfort. When social disconnection met McNally during moves to three different states, Morgan was a gateway to making new friends. Even if the people at the dog park didn’t remember Kerry, they always remembered Morgan’s mom.
“Pet ownership,” says Sinnott-Stutzman, “is a great balm for anything that isolates us from each other, whether that’s a blizzard or a pandemic or you have to take a job far away from your family. It’s one of those things that keeps us emotionally healthy, and I think for a lot of people that was thrown into relief during COVID.”
Our dog mania is abating a bit — Cherins of PuppySpot said prices for Bernedoodles, for example, have so far dropped 5 percent in 2021. And as we enter the vaccinated days of the pandemic, a familiar fear has reemerged alongside concerns over separation anxiety and other behavioral hangovers from our socially distant ways: Will once-eager pet owners abandon their dogs for other obligations, deluging shelters? A wave of surrenders was expected last year, and a handful of animal welfare groups have already said they are ratcheting up.
But at the moment, there’s no evidence to suggest widespread or significant increases in people giving up pets. To Keiley — who says surrenders to the MSPCA are on “a slow increase to normal” pre-pandemic rates — assuming that people relinquish pets because of fickleness looks past the nuances of reality. “The reasons why people give up animals are complex,” he says, “and we could do a lot more to support people through their challenges than assume the worst of them from the beginning.” Housing problems, for instance, are major, perennial reasons for pet surrenders to the MSPCA, Keiley says, and pandemic moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures likely helped keep animal shelter populations low. Without a lasting solution that relieves both landlords and tenants, however, he expects an uptick in housing-related surrenders.
Looking back over an extraordinarily stressful time, it seems we’ve been especially grateful for our new furry friends. According to a survey from pet-care service marketplace Rover.com, 93 percent of respondents said pandemic pets improved their “mental and/or physical well-being” over the last year. And as new dog owners have no doubt learned for themselves these last 15 months, metrics don’t capture the depth of our interspecies relationships.
On a frigid Friday in January, after Biff’s gray hind legs gave out and the disembodied voice of a veterinarian on the other end of the line said I should consider euthanasia, I spent hours flicking through old iPhone pictures. My life’s peaks and valleys were just out of frame: Biff at age 2 kissing my wife in her bridal veil, Biff at 5 nuzzling my niece as my father lay dying in the next room, Biff at 9 napping in my infant son’s bassinet, Biff at 13 in a porcupine-print sweater while a pandemic raged through the winter. The vet’s suggestion must have scared Biff straight — he’s been walking well enough and enjoying his usual life ever since. I’m clear-eyed about how much longer a 14-year-old bulldog has left, but every day that ends with Biff and his little sister Mabel snoring in my ear is richer for their presence.
“They’re a light to have in your life,” says McNally, who’s now basking in puppy love herself. She’s speaking to me on a Sunday evening in May, freshly returned to her Weymouth home from a trip to a farm outside Middlebury, Vermont. Earlier in the spring she found a breeder of golden retriever-Irish setter crosses — ”a golden Irish,” she says — with two puppies left in the litter. She put down a $400 deposit right away. At noon on the appointed day, the breeder gave the puppy a raccoon squeak toy with his birth mother’s scent for the four-hour ride to Massachusetts.
McNally named her puppy after Midas, the Greek king with the golden touch. She took a week and a half off work to introduce him to her world, just like the puppy books suggest. She booked his first vet appointment long before she picked him up, though. More than a month out, there was just one opening available.
Jeff Harder is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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