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SC animal shelters remain at overcapacity: 'We're overwhelmed'

Dogs in Kennels

Dogs sitting in kennels in a hallway at the Pawmetto Lifeline in Columbia. The rescue group, like others, is at overcapacity. Photo by Tyler Fedor/The Post and Courier  

COLUMBIA — Shelters across South Carolina are overflowing as the number of animals rises for the second time since 2020.

More animals arriving at shelters in the summer is not unusual as more people go on vacation or move, said Victoria Riles, superintendent of Columbia Animal Services.

And shelters have been at higher capacity since fewer animals are being spayed and neutered as COVID-19 took most of the attention of medical professionals, said Abigail Appleton, chief projects officer at North Charleston-based No Kill South Carolina.

But shelter owners have said overcrowding is worse than ever before with a shortage of veterinarians and fewer people willing to temporarily house animals, commonly known as fostering.

The overcapacity has been going on since the winter.

“We're overwhelmed and trying to do the best that we can but the animals ultimately are going to suffer,” said Denise Wilkinson, chief executive of Columbia's Pawmetto Lifeline.

Seventy percent of the 75 shelters in South Carolina don’t have a dedicated veterinarian, Wilkinson said. Without one, it's harder to give away dogs since state law says any dog that is adopted must be fixed.

This creates a growing number of dogs in shelters.

Pawmetto Lifeline had 177 animals in a building meant for 150 on June 13. To fit the extra animals, they had to store their animals in an area meant for training dogs.

On May 27, Columbia Animal Services declared a state of emergency on its social media pages. It had 192 dogs in its building, which has 148 dog kennels. Almost all of their kennels had a dog or two in them on June 14. One dog was in a cage in a room meant for playing with cats.

Cheryl Price, an animal control officer at Calhoun County Animal Shelter, said the shelter has been at capacity for the past year and a half with 18 kennels. She said whenever a dog is adopted, two or three are waiting to take its place.

“It's just mentally and physically exhausting. Your mind never shuts down,” Price said.

As more dogs arrive at shelters, the threat of diseases spreading increases.

Joe Elmore, president and CEO of Charleston Animal Society, said more dogs are coming to their shelter in North Charleston with distemper, a virus that is usually incurable, fatal and highly transmissible. State law also says dogs admitted to a shelter must be held for five days.

The growing number of animals also can result in an increase in dogs being put down, according to Shelly Simmons, director of Greenville County Animal Care. She said that the shelter usually puts down dogs with moderate to severe behavioral or health problems. Now, she said they're having to put down dogs with only mild problems.

“They could become healthy if we had the space and the time,” Simmons said.

Multiple shelters either lowered or removed adoption fees for some time. Columbia Animal Services waived all adoption fees last week and Greenville County Animal Care has free adoptions for all of June.

“It really is still only a Band-Aid to the bigger problem, which is, the number of pets that are coming into the shelter,” Simmons said.

Pawmetto Lifeline has lowered its fees for three days earlier in June and opened up two hours early June 11 to get more people to take their animals. Wilkinson said they were considering opening early again on June 18.

One way Pawmetto Lifeline and other shelters reduce their capacity is by getting people to take cats and dogs home temporarily. The group, however, has a list of several hundred animals waiting to be put into foster care.

Despite their pushes on social media and their deals, though, Wilkinson said they received a very small response from anyone willing to temporarily house an animal.

Many of the dogs filling up shelters are pit bulls and pit bulls mix, according to Elmore. Since shelters facing capacity issues won't be able to give the care animals need, this could make dogs more aggressive, Elmore said.

Some shelter owners favor stronger spay and neuter laws targeting pitbull-type dogs specifically.

"We're all just frustrated with having to put them down because there's so many flooding the shelters now," Elmore said. 

Reach Tyler Fedor at 443-591-7516. Follow him on Twitter at @tylerrfedor. Send tips to