In the first few months of the pandemic last year, more than 1,000 people were approved to foster pets from the Pennsylvania SPCA’s site in Philadelphia.

This year, that number has dropped precipitously, to just around 100 fosters, said Madeleine Bernstein, manager of lifesaving for the Philadelphia PSPCA.

“We were getting double digits of applications a day for fosters during COVID,” she said. “Now we’re lucky if we get 10 a week.”

The frenzy to buy, adopt, or foster pets during the pandemic has slowed from its peak last spring and summer, when millions of people sequestered at home and started to look for furry companions. At the time, many shelters in the Philadelphia area had a larger number of empty kennels. Breeders were overrun with inquiries for puppies. There was no shortage of fosters.

Interest from fosters started to taper off around the beginning of January, Bernstein said. “A lot of people said, ‘Hey, I’m going back to work, and I can’t foster anymore.’”

The drop-off in fosters has become a concern as many shelters continue to fill up, particularly as animal welfare workers bring in droves of immune-fragile newborn kittens found outside in the midst of kitten season — the series of warm-weather months when hundreds of outdoor cats birth litters. Newborns, which must be bottle-fed, are best raised in a foster home until they are older and their immune systems are better equipped to fight illness, according to the PSPCA.

“[W]hat is worrisome is that in 2020, basically everyone who wanted to adopt a pet did so, as opposed to the usual seasonal increases and decreases,” said Sarah Barnett, a spokesperson for the city-funded Animal Care and Control Team of Philadelphia. “As a result, we may be looking at a summer with a lot less people looking to adopt.

“Shelters around the country saw a huge uptick in fosters, too, with people being at home. Now, as people return to work, we’re worried that we’re going to have even less adopters and fosters than we saw prior to the pandemic, with the same number or even more pets in need.”

As shelters are filling up again, the PSPCA in Philadelphia has seen “a fair number of returns” — a number on par with return rates pre-COVID-19 — from people who adopted pets at the beginning of the pandemic but brought them back when they couldn’t afford their care or because the pets lacked socialization with people and other dogs, Bernstein said. Other owners realized they couldn’t commit to caring for their pet’s medical conditions.

“We have also seen a lot of parents who adopted for their children,” she said, “and now their kids are back to doing things, so animals are coming back, as well.”

People surrendered 270 cats and dogs to the PSPCA in Philadelphia in all of 2020, 200 fewer animals compared with 2019, Bernstein said. As of early June, 97 animals had been surrendered, an indication that this year’s return rate will outstrip last year’s.

ACCT, in Hunting Park, received a heavy stream of animals last month, in one instance taking in 164 animals in four days. That number, while large, paled in comparison with typical figures in late spring and summer, when Barnett said the shelter takes in hundreds of pets — and often more than a thousand — each month.

This year, shelters are expecting an influx of cats and kittens because at one point during the pandemic, the practice of trap-neuter-return — “a critical component to preventing community cats from having more litters and contributing to the hundreds of thousands of cats outside in Philadelphia,” Barnett said — was paused to focus on other essential work.

Despite more crowded shelters recently, numbers and anecdotal evidence have shown that most people have kept pets they got during the pandemic, said Carly Gove, community engagement manager for Philadelphia-based Morris Animal Refuge.

“The numbers are just showing that people’s pandemic pets are still happily in their homes,” she said. “It seems like most people who adopted over the pandemic are still able to care for their animals.”