In response to a request from DVM Newsmagazine, ASPCA officials estimate that 500,000 to 1 million cats and dogs in the country could be given up by their owners for economic reasons.
Why the huge disparity? Many shelters are not equipped to accurately report numbers and reasons for relinquishments, says Alison M. Zaccone, manager of media and communications at ASPCA.
"Economic issues aside, it is estimated that 5 million companion animals enter shelters each year," Zawistowski adds.
"If you factor in the animals merely in danger of becoming homeless, it could result in an extra 10 percent to 20 percent increase in relinquishments to shelters. This has the potential to grow into a serious animal-welfare issue, and some regions of the United States, like Nevada -- where the foreclosure rates are three times the national average could be hit much harder than others."
In October 2008, an article appeared in The Denver Post about a woman who tried to poison her dog with an overdose of anti-anxiety pills. When it didn’t die, she shot it four times with a .22 caliber handgun.
Yes, but at its roots, sheer desperation…
Paula Harding, age 33, told police she couldn’t afford a veterinarian due to financial problems, nor could she afford euthanasia for her sick 15-year-old terrier/poodle mix. She called her dog a “good friend” and felt she had no other option. Now, on top of her financial difficulties, she faces animal cruelty charges.
The Grim Reality
Sad cases like this are turning up all over the country. On May 28 a big semi pulled into my veterinary practice after-hours and begged the last remaining staff person to please take their ill cat. They were passing through the area and felt we may be compassionate enough to euthanize their sick cat for free. Otherwise, they told my employee, they would be forced to dump her paralyzed body along a busy street, hoping someone would find her and be able to afford a humane euthanasia.
Pets are the voiceless victims of the tanking economy and are frequently abandoned at shelters or even left behind in foreclosed homes.
Some of these abandoned and starving animals aren’t being discovered until real estate agents come to show the property, many days or weeks later. There are tales of dogs being found in state parks, cats left on doorsteps in cat carriers, and animals simply abandoned on the street.
People are having to choose between feeding their children and feeding their pets, and pets are losing. As the cost of food and healthcare rises, so does pet food and veterinary care.
So many people are feeling forced to abandon their animals that a new term is being used: “foreclosure pets.” The number of foreclosure pets is increasing while the donations and offers for housing are decreasing.
According to the New Haven Register, shelter and rescue operations are up by 15 or 20 percent, in some cases more. The number of people adopting is dropping in some areas, but increasing in others…a small bright spot in the story.
Donna Miles of Bella Vista Animal Shelter reported she receives two or three calls per day from pet owners who are no longer capable of caring for them. These calls used to come from folks who had been through divorce and could not keep their pets, but lately, the foreclosure crisis is the cause, although owners are often reluctant and embarrassed to talk about it.
Another shelter owner said the animals she used to receive were scruffy and underfed, but of late, she is receiving animals that are obviously well loved and well cared for. These pets are arriving shelters, complete with cat trees, litter boxes, favorite toys and photo albums.
This is such a heart-breaking testament to the anguish people must face in having to part with their devoted companions.
Big Hearts Are Stepping Up
Many shelters are seeing an increase in donations and adoptions. Instead of taking a vacation, some animal lovers are rescuing an abandoned pet instead.
Pet food banks are emerging in many neighborhoods.
Organizations are popping up everywhere to help with the pet crisis. An organization called No Paws Left Behind helps people find new lodging for their animals, trying to work with pet owners before the foreclosure takes place.
One of their main goals is to educate people about the types of shelters they’re selecting. Many have a No Kill policy in place. However, shelters without a No Kill policy are responsible for euthanizing more than 12 million dogs and cats each year.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) created a grant program in March 2008 to help with the foreclosure pets. Grants ranged from $500 to 2,000 per organization.
However, due to financial constraints, they had to temporarily close the Foreclosure Pets Fund as of May 4, 2009. Unfortunately, there are more dogs than dollars.
What You Can Do
The Humane Society website has some excellent suggestions for pet owners who are facing economic hardship. Here are some of their suggestions, and a few additional thoughts:
- Plan ahead. There are folks who can help you find animal friendly housing, but you must not wait until you are homeless to get your ducks in a row (or your cats and dogs). Check ads and contact real estate agents at least six weeks before you have to move. Contact your local Humane Society office, which sometimes keeps a list of pet-friendly apartments. Gather proof that you’re responsible. Once you have permission from a landlord, get it in writing.
- Be proactive. It is unlikely you’ll be able to rent a small apartment with 6 animals in tow. Try to find homes for your animals yourself. What about friends and family? What about a local shelter? People at church?
- Don’t be shy—ask for help. Reach out to fellow dog and cat owners. Put the word out. Ask your neighbors to help. Even contact a news organization!
- Let your vet know. He or she might be able to help by offering a discount, and by prescribing only the most vital vaccination (the only vaccine required by law is rabies vaccine) to keep your pet healthy. And vets are usually knowledgeable about local community resources.
- Keep the faith. There are a lot of good people out there who are looking for ways to help. Once you are on your feet again, you may be able to retrieve your pet.
- DON’T leave your pet behind, no matter what. No matter how hard it is to cope or how overwhelmed you are, please don’t leave your pets in your house when you move out. It can be weeks before the lender or a realtor comes to the house and finds Fluffy slowly starving inside.
If you are considering adding a pet to your life, please consider rescuing a homeless pet from a shelter, instead of buying a puppymill pet from a store. Or, if you want a slightly different experience, you might be interested in becoming a foster care volunteer for a homeless dog or cat.
The bottom line is, our pets are in need of bailout, far more than our banks. You can make a difference, and the first step is getting educated on the issues.
Our pets, who bring us many years of happiness and devotion and good health, are completely dependent on us. Don’t let them suffer in silence any longer.
Good Animal Welfare Organizations
The following is a list of animal welfare organizations that are actively involved in lessening the impact of this economic crisis on our furry friends.
- No Kill Network
- Humane Society list of pet financial aid-related organizations
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)No Paws Left Behind
- Foreclosure Pets
- Best Friends Animal Society, No More Homeless Pets Page
- Green Paw
- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
- Animal Rights and Animal Protection Organizations(listed by state)
- The Animal Rescue Site
- Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS)