The head of a Bedford-based charity that rescues cats and adopts them to new owners said the province needs to do more to help pet owners who are surrendering their animals because they can’t find pet-friendly housing.

Linda Felix started Spay Day HRM in 2011. They offer a spay-and-neuter program for low-income pet owners, and adopt out many cats. In the past dozen years, Spay Day HRM has spayed or neutered more than 5,800 cats.

On the weekend, Spay Day shared this post on its Facebook page. The post features a photo of a ginger cat named Carlos that was surrendered to the shelter by its owners, including a young boy, who have owned the cat since he was eight weeks old. The post says many other cats have been surrendered to the shelter as well, calling it the “theme of 2023”:

My eyes & heart have connected too many faces with homelessness; nice families with children and pets. It is a desperate situation happening quietly in our neighbourhoods. After spending years and having success addressing the overpopulation of cats in HRM I can say we have a new cat crisis; the number of abandoned & surrendered cats due to the rental & homeless situation happening now. Once again the shelters are full, and so many abandoned cats being posted on social media looking for a place to go. Spay Day House is full and we have a waiting list to come in. 

A smiling white woman with short cropped hair, glasses, and wearing a burgundy, black, and white print top holds a tabby cat with white under its chin and on its paws. They are in a room with a window in the background, a off-white chair in the corner, and cat toys and a cat bed on the floor. A black shelving unit stores cat treats and brushes. On the wall is a painting of a tabby cat lying in a bed up against a fluffy white pillow and reading a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Linda Felix and Pluto at the Spay Day shelter in Bedford. Credit: Suzanne Rent

Felix first mentioned this issue to the Halifax Examiner in February in this profile about her work rescuing felines. But in an interview with the Examiner on Tuesday, Felix said the issue has become much worse over the last number of months. She said she will be sending a letter about this to Premier Tim Houston this week.

“When you take these cats from families that are upset, it’s very difficult,” Felix said. “I have been doing this too often. It’s time for change. It’s not like an occasional surrender. It’s coming to a point where this is happening every week. I dread the end of the month coming because we have so many requests.”

Felix said Friday was a moving day for many people, and she said they try their best to rehome their cats, but pet owners often “get desperate” because there is nowhere to go. She called this issue the new cat crisis in the city.

“Our shelter is quite small, I can’t speak for the larger shelters, but there’s some surge in abandoned cats around the city, and our shelter we’re getting requests every week,” Felix said. “Carlos on Friday is a sad story, but he was icing on the cake for me. He was the fourth such cat that day.”

Felix said in some cases apartment buildings are sold and the new owner puts in a no-pet policy. If those tenants can’t find another place to rent that allows pets, they will bring them to the shelter. She said other owners have to move into tents, campers, or are couch surfing and can’t bring a pet along with them or the animals are abandoned on the streets. Felix said she neutered a cat whose owners lived in their vehicle. 

She said the stories are especially sad when the pets are owned by children or seniors. In the latter case, she said pets are often their owner’s only companion. 

“There are all kinds of scenarios,” Felix said. “When the building is declared pet-free, they leave thinking they can find another rental that will take their pet and they mean well and quickly find out there’s nowhere to rent period, never mind with a pet.”

Felix said adding a no-pet policy to a lease is a way for landlords to get around rent caps and renoviction rules. She said she’s heard that from a colleague who works at a vet clinic who said “quite bluntly” a landlord putting in a no-pet policy is a way to force people out of their apartments. 

And then they raise the rent and move new people in. There’s a loophole there that isn’t covered under Nova Scotia laws and regulations. We call them renovictions. Well, we’ll have to make a term for pet evictions, and there’s no policing on this because there is no law about it. Nova Scotia needs some rules and regulations on this and enforcement. If a little old lady has lived in her apartment for 10 years with her cat, all of a sudden the building declares no pets, and she has to get rid of her only companion, it’s very sad and there’s no need for it.

Felix said in Ontario, the law is a bit “backward” in that a building can be declared pet free, but a tenant can move in and get a pet, and the landlord can’t do anything about it.

“I think Nova Scotia can certainly do better than that and we could create a law that suits our situation here, but at least in Ontario they recognize the problem and try to deal with it. Here in Nova Scotia, I think we’re starting with zero on this one,” she said.

Increase in pet surrenders at provincial shelters

Heather Woodin, director of programs and administration for the Nova Scotia SPCA, said the SPCA is also seeing an increase in owners surrendering their pets because of housing insecurity and financial constraints. Woodin added this is already a busy time of year at its shelters.

“What this is causing is a bit of a wait to get your animal into the SPCA,” Woodin said in a phone interview. “This time of year is our busy season because it is cat breeding season. So, every year in the warmer summer months, we see an influx of cats and kittens. The increase of owner surrenders for these reasons is just adding an extra layer of burden on top of the SPCA’s already busy season causing increased demand for services.”

She said the Nova Scotia SPCA is a no-kill shelter, and does have a very high adoption rate.

Still, the increase in the number of surrendered pets, including cats and dogs, puts more strain on the provincial shelter’s services. They need more food, litter, and monetary donations to help support more animals.

But Woodin wants pet owners to know they are always there to help and offer programs, including a pet pantry, for pet owners who may find themselves in need of support.

“We are still doing our best to keep up with it, even though there might be a temporary wait, it’s not long,” Woodin said.

‘More housing is the answer’

The Examiner contacted Bide Awhile, another animal shelter in Dartmouth, which confirmed in an email it’s seeing the same trend at Spay Day Nova Scotia and the SPCA. Liesje Somers-Blonde said they’ve received a number of calls to surrender cats and dogs of all ages because of the housing crisis.

“Most of the calls site that their landlord has sold the property, they are being evicted and they cannot find suitable housing for their families that allow pets,” Somers-Blonde wrote in the email. “In other cases it seniors going into care facilities that do not allow pets. The families and seniors are forced to choose between their pets and having a roof over their heads.”

Somers-Blonde said “more housing is the answer” to this issue, but added “that doesn’t happen overnight.” She said in the meantime, shelter, rescuers, and fosters are doing all they can help pet owners.

We all have waiting lists, some months long.  One of the first questions we ask is how dire is your need?  What’s the last possible date you can keep them to, and then we go down the list when we have space and contact the next most dire companions family to say we have a spot.

We are still adopting companions out, so somewhere the landlords are allowing animals to live in their rentals. At Bide Awhile we call the landlord as part of the adoption agreement, so I know for a fact they’re allowing pets in some buildings, and rentals.  There are just more people looking for them and competition is great for those rentals.  

‘Humanizing the crisis’

Katie Brousseau, a community legal worker with Dalhousie Legal Aid, said in an interview she sees the same issue in her work with clients. She said in some cases clients have been renovicted from pet-friendly buildings and they’re now searching the private markets for homes that are pet-friendly and finding nothing available. She said some of those clients have chosen instead to live in outdoors, in campers or in cars, rather than give up their pets.

“I think it speaks to what we’re seeing on such a consistent basis is that people don’t have access to affordable, accessible, accommodating spaces to live and enjoy their lives and pets are a big part of that for a lot of people,” Brousseau said.

“It’s really very much humanizing the crisis. It’s not just about numbers. It’s people’s lives.”

She said the no-pet policy in rentals doesn’t apply to registered service animals such as guide dogs for people who are blind and partially sighted.

Like Somers-Blonde, Brousseau said the solution to this issue is to have more housing.

It seems to me this is a very obvious symptom of the housing crisis we’re experiencing. So, it’s really not just pets; it’s the availability of affordable, appropriate housing. And so, maybe there are some short-term measures that could be taken on a policy level, perhaps, to speak to this piece. But in my view, the larger piece is we need more housing, more affordable housing. And not just in the private sector, but the province in their role in the development of more public housing.

‘Pet owners are probably more responsible tenants’

Felix said as long as cats are spayed and neutered, there won’t be destruction on property. And she said pet ownership can make someone a good tenant.

“I have no problem with requesting that pets be fixed. I have no problem perhaps if people want a small damage deposit, just in case. If you want to limit the number of animals in a facility, it depends on how building the apartment is… but to declare absolutely no pets for no reason, it’s just hurtful,” she said.

“Pet owners are probably more responsible tenants. They tend to stay longer. There are a lot of positives to having pets in your building with tenants. People are calmer, respectful.”

She said the cats that owners are bringing into the shelter are well taken care of indoor cats that have been spayed or neutered, but the situation can be very confusing for the animals.

“It’s very sad for the cats. They don’t know where their home went and why they are with us,” she said. “They tend to be older cats… people who have been renting and had their pet for a number of years. It’s very tough.”

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. Dear Suzanne
    Thank you so much for this article. While I can’t share it on FB I have written to an assortment of politicos and the Human Rights Commission the following:

    An HRM councillor referred me to the province as my concern does not fall under the municipal jurisdiction. “Not my Department” is unfortunately the universal default on many housing issues. I refer to an article in the Halifax Examiner:

    I believe no-pets policies to be a human rights issue and will place additional stress and heart break for many lonely and poor people. There is strong evidence of the positive effect of companion animals on mental health. I am sure the policies will not be applied to people in high end apartments. Most pet owners are responsible. Leases can contain clauses for damage made by pets to be the responsibility of tenants. I realize this concern may be perceived as a “micro” concern in terms of the larger housing crisis, which has been developing from years of inaction at all levels of government. Yet I see it as one more symptom of an issue that will be dealt with in what sounds to be an important book being launched this Wed Sep 20 at Dalhousie.
    The Tenant Class, By Ricardo Tranjan
    Tranjan is a political economist and senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). In The Tenant Class, Tranjan asks the question, What if there is no housing crisis, but instead a housing market working exactly as intended? This book has been described as a “trailblazing manifesto in which Ricardo Tranjan breaks down pervasive myths about renters, mom-and-pop landlords, and housing affordability. Drawing upon a long, inspiring history of collective action in Canada, Tranjan argues that organized tenants have the power to fight back.”
    This event will be Hybrid, registration for those joining online is forthcoming.
    Elinor Benjamin, Dartmouth

  2. excellent points — a pet an aid to many with disabilities- one wonders how long it will be before the NS Human Rights Act is amended so that pet owners do not face discrimination in rental homes.

  3. Interesting article and an another way our laws, rules, regulations regarding rentals , renovictions, damage deposits and pets ( DOGS and CATS) are complex and not enforced.
    To say that pet owners of DOGS and CATS are
    “Pet owners are probably more responsible tenants. They tend to stay longer. There are a lot of positives to having pets in your building with tenants. People are calmer, respectful.” is not true at all.

    As in the case of good and bad tenants there are also good and bad pet owners . Those that don’t clean up their animal waste both outside and in their buildings and units along with issues of excessive barking, damage to units and public spaces spoil it for those that follow the rules.

  4. Well, there is “a law” against it: unilaterally changing the rules in an unreasonable way is considered a change in the terms of the lease, invariably it would be considered an increase in rent.

    While undoubtedly this is a problem, I’m not seeing the description of how it plays out at an RT hearing.