The following content is created in partnership with Hill’s Pet Nutrition. It does not reflect the work or opinions of the NBC Owned Stations’ editorial staffs. Click here  to learn more about Hill’s Pet Nutrition and its mission to help shelter pets find the loving homes they deserve.

Before 2020, adopting a pet was a bit easier: Go to a shelter; see a puppy, a kitten, a dog, or a cat; fall in love at first sight; begin the adoption process.

This year, things are different: Finding a new pet can be an experience much different from that just a year ago: The pandemic—as with just about everything else—changed pet adoption.

Take for instance Katie McGerr and Blake Segal, a married couple in upstate, New York. Working long hours in the theater as teachers, they had been looking to adopt a dog. Now homebound, they saw an opportunity to find a pet, transition him to their home, train him, and learn his needs. More importantly, they saw their chance to share their love and home with a new family member.

Enter Henry, a sweet, gentle beagle , quieter than most of his breed. Henry, somewhere between five- and eight-years-old, was found as a stray in Mobile, AL and went on to be fostered there for three months. McGerr and Segal would soon look to adopt Henry. But the process was definitely different this year. After seeing Henry on the website of local shelter, the couple eventually got to meet Henry—but only for a brief meeting outside the shelter. And before committing fully to Henry, the couple was allowed to spend one night with the dog at their home. Recalls McGerr, " He was a little shy at first but by the end of the visit he was ready for belly rubs."

McGerr and Segal decided to keep Henry.

Like Henry, many shelter animals this year found homes—a good number of them being foster homes. “We're seeing an explosion of the number of families who have opened their homes to be foster parents for animals that otherwise would have been in shelters,” says Jim Tedford, President & CEO of The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement, an association for leaders in the fields of animal welfare. “We've sort of been turning our communities into animal shelters by sending animals outside of the shelter buildings.”

Hill's Pet Nutrition, a partner of The Association and Clear The Shelters, is also a long time advocate of both pet adoption and fostering, which is why the company partnered with NBC earlier this year to sponsor the campaign #StayHomeAndFoster. Since people across the country were at home more, the thinking went, they’d have more time to help pets acclimate to new homes. Plus, some potential fosters found this as an opportunity to use the time to see if they were ready to adopt a pet themselves—or merely to find some companionship while homebound.

Still, a good number of pets continue to need homes. To that end, Hill's is once again working with NBC and hundreds of shelters across the country throughout August to help find homes for thousands of pets during the 6th Annual Clear The Shelters pet adoption campaign. So for anyone looking to adopt or foster, some things have changed. Here are some of the ways:

Shelters without workers
While animal shelters have been allowed to remain open during the pandemic, only the most crucial staffers continue working there, while the rest stay home to be safe. That fewer workers and volunteers are on hand to look after the furry residents means it's even more important to get these animals temporary or forever homes.

New ways to adopt
Since shelters can no longer host visitors, they had to come up with alternative ways to introduce animals to potential parents. Depending on the shelter, prospective new pet owners might find themselves choosing animals via computer or seeing them virtually; meetups might occur in front of the shelter, or even at an off-site location, like a park. “We came up with innovative new ways to do it,” Tedford says. “Shelters are hosting curbside adoptions and people are adopting animals via the internet, sight unseen. Trying to matchmake pets and people is challenging enough when everybody can be in the same place. But now we can't do that. We had to figure out other ways to make the best matches we could.”

Shelters adopted safety measures
In some areas, aspiring pet parents still do get to actually visit shelters and see the animals in person. Naturally, though, there are new safety measures. “They're just having to be creative about how they manage that,” Tedford says. “Most are requiring pretty extensive use of masks and some require even more extensive personal protective equipment.”

The volunteer situation has changed too: Because of the limit on the number of people who can gather in shelters, lots of organizations have suspended their volunteer programs. “That’s challenging for organizations who depend on volunteer help,” Tedford says. “But it's also tough on those volunteers. These people tend to be extremely passionate about what they do. When they’re shut out, it takes an emotional toll.”

Fostering vs. adopting
Working to clear the shelters early this year, shelters and animal organizations are not only seeking potential adopters, they're also looking for potential foster homes. “There were probably more fosters than adoptions right off the bat, Tedford says. “It's as if the shorter-term commitment—maybe a few months—made it a lot easier to get folks to take that plunge than to adopt and commit for 12 to 15 years. Creating foster homes became really, really easy. I’ve talked to shelter directors around the country who reported that they literally ran out of animals. They had a huge backlog of foster volunteers just waiting for an animal.”

Dogs vs. cats
Regarding dog adoption compared to cat adoption: There’s no real difference this year. While cats have become America’s most popular house pet, shelter cat populations are still higher compared to dogs.

State of the shelters
While the pandemic is putting more animals into homes, it’s been a bit rough on some shelters. “They’ve been struggling financially, even more than before,” Tedford says. “A lot of organizations are very reliant on events—for example, fundraising. And the events are having to be canceled or transitioned to a virtual format. So the revenue is really down.” Tedford adds, though, that some sheltering organizations have reported a significant uptick in donations. “Folks are really stepping up and supporting them,” he says.

Hill's Pet Nutrition stepped up to that challenge by supplying more than 494,000 pounds of pet food with a value of over $2 million to support shelters and pet families impacted by COVID-19 through its Disaster Relief Network. Hill's established the network in 2013 as a direct extension of its Food, Shelter, & Love program, which supports over 800 shelters in North America year-round and has helped more than 11 million pets find new homes since 2002.

As Joan Thielen communications and content specialist for Dumb Friends League in Denver, CO says, “We knew we could rely on Hill’s Pet Nutrition to supply us with food for animals in foster homes.” Indeed, proper nutrition is extremely important to keep foster and shelter pets healthy and ready for adoption.

Animals are still looking for homes
While a good number of shelters are fairly empty, pets are still available for adoption. “Basically, a great deal of the supply of animals has moved from shelters to foster homes,” Tedford says. One way to locate them is to search online, such as on the HIll's Clear the Shelters page, which offers a search function.

“I don't want to get complacent,” Tedford says. “I don't want to assume that, because shelters are dealing with lower populations right now, that’s going to continue over the long haul. Clearing the shelters are still and will always be an issue for us, really. Whether temporary or permanent, these animals are always better off in a home than they would be in the best shelter in the world.”

As for Henry and his new parents, family life is good. "Henry's coming out of his shell a bit more every day and has been initiating much more playtime lately," says McGerr. "He’s learning to get comfortable with loud noises—he’s been a little afraid of the garage door and very spooked by the opening of soda cans." To sum it all up, as Katie posted on her Facebook page, "Henry enjoys rolling in smells; is skeptical of doors and running water; is a champion napper; and has a huge and trusting heart, which has taken quick and loving residence in ours.”

Henry the beagle and family: From left, Henry McSegal; Katie McGerr, Henry, and Blake Segal; Henry.

Join us as we clear the shelters. Hill's Pet Nutrition is proud to return as the national sponsor of NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations Clear The Shelters nationwide pet adoption campaign, which placed over 160,000 animals in loving homes last year. In addition to sponsoring Clear The Shelters, Hill's supports animal shelters year-round through its Food, Shelter, & Love program which has provided over $295 million to support pets in need and has helped more than 11 million pets find new homes since 2002. Interested in adopting or fostering a pet? Maybe you’d just like to donate money or supplies? Or just spread the word? Whatever the case, our furry friends still need you. Click here to take part.

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