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More pets turned over to shelters in ailing economy

If you're struggling to care for a pet, help is available.

By Karen Datko Oct 26, 2009 2:20AM

This post comes from Lisa Wade McCormick at partner blog

Leanne Potts can't shake the painful image.

A distressed pet owner told Potts she'd lost her home and business and could no longer afford to take care of her beloved dog. The Chattanooga woman then asked Potts' organization to take her 8-year-old basset hound.

The story is one her animal-rescue group in Tennessee is encountering often during these tough economic times.

"It was heartbreaking to take the dog from her," said Potts, president of BellyRubs Basset Rescue, a nonprofit group that finds homes for basset hounds.

"This was a middle-class woman who lived in a nice part of Chattanooga. She and her husband owned a restaurant and had taken out a second mortgage to start the business. The business failed and they lost everything."

Potts' group took the woman's basset, but she had three other dogs. Another rescue group took one of them.

"But the other two were older dogs," Potts said. "They were on a lot of medication for arthritis. The woman told us she couldn't afford that medication and couldn't find anyone to take those dogs."

That forced the woman to make a heart-wrenching decision.

"She put the older dogs down," Potts said, unable to mask the sadness in her voice. "She said she would not take them to the pound, she couldn't keep them or couldn't find any rescue group to take them. And she didn't want them to suffer without their medication. So she had them put down."

Potts worries that other pet owners in her area may soon be forced to make similar decisions.

"We've been hit really hard (economically)," she said. "Tennessee is leading the nation in personal bankruptcies. We're getting a lot more calls from individuals who want to give us their dogs because they're losing their homes.

"With all the foreclosures and job losses, the animals are the final victims," added Potts, whose organization rescued 71 dogs in 2008, a 50% increase over the previous year. "They're the forgotten victims in all of this."

Animal-rescue groups and shelters across the country echo Potts' concerns. Many tell they've seen an increase in the number of pet owners forced to give up their dogs and cats because of the ailing economy.

"We've seen a lot of that," said Kathy Burkley, executive director of the Humane Society of Westmoreland County in Greensburg, Pa. "A lot of people are either losing their homes or can't afford their homes."

Two people recently brought their dogs to Burkley's facility, which is a no-kill shelter. "They wanted to leave their two big dogs with us because they couldn't afford them anymore," Burkley said. "We asked them if they could give us a few days because we didn't have any space."

The people walked out, but left their dogs in the shelter's parking lot.

"We looked out the window and saw they had tied up those dogs to a telephone pole," Burkley said. "We couldn't get a license plate because they walked here."

This particular story, however, has a happy ending. "Both those dogs were adopted," Burkley said.

Some distraught pet owners simply leave their dogs and cats in their foreclosed homes when they're forced to move out.

"Our humane agents have seen that happen several times," Burkley said. "People leave their dogs and cats and walk away. Last week, we took in eight Jack Russell terriers that were left in a house without food or water."

Burkley's facility has seen the impact of the tough economy in other ways.

"We run a clinic once a week where pet owners can bring in their animals for shots and checkups," she said. "We've started to see people coming in with absolutely no money. When we ask them if they can afford to pay even $10, they say no. Last Tuesday, we had two emergencies and the people had no money to give us."

Problems across the country

Lynne Ouchida, community outreach coordinator for the Humane Society of Central Oregon, said people there are giving up all of the animals in their homes. "This is something we used to rarely -- if ever -- see. But now, we're seeing people give multiple animals at one time," she said.

Many people in central Oregon own small ranches, and some of those ranchers are abandoning their horses because of the high cost of hay and veterinary care, Ouchida said.

"Oftentimes they do not consider the long-term costs, and during difficult financial time, horses are found abandoned on public lands. This can also happen to longtime ranch folks."

Ouchida's shelter has seen another sign of the sagging economy -- more people asking for pet food. But, she added, because of the downturn in the economy, the shelter was seeing "huge drops" in pet food donations. 

However, in early 2008, 12-year-old Mimi Ausland of Bend, Ore., started the FreeKibble and FreeKibbleKat Web sites to help feed the animals at Ouchida's shelter.

Mimi, who partnered with pet food company Castor and Pollux, donates 10 pieces of kibble for every person who goes to those Web sites and plays a trivia game. Their efforts have  provided more than 49 million pieces of kibble to 11 shelters nationwide.

The Humane Society of the United States has also helped Ouchida's facility and scores of other animal shelters and rescue groups nationwide deal with the increasing number of animals they're seeing in the tight economy.

HSUS started a special foreclosure fund to help "establish, expand, or publicize services or programs that assist families in caring for their pets during the current economic crisis." Animal shelters and rescue groups can apply for grants of up to $2,000.

"So far, we've given out about $80,000 to 46 organizations," said Nancy Peterson, manager of HSUS's Feral Cat Program. "We seeded the grant with $15,000 and now have $105,000, thanks to the generosity of a lot of wonderful people. And we will continue to provide grants as long as we have money."

What you can do

Officials with animal shelters and rescue groups offer the following advice to pet owners faced with a financial crisis:

  • Contact your local humane society or animal rescue group.

  • Never leave your pets in a foreclosed home.

  • Be proactive about your financial problems.

  • Try to keep vaccinations and flea treatments current.

  • Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Animal lovers can help struggling pets and their owners by:

  • Providing temporary housing for pets while their owners get settled.

  • Supporting their local animal shelters by donating food, money or time. Some children across the country have asked their family and friends to make donations to animal organizations instead of giving them presents for birthdays, Christmas or other holidays.

  • Helping a pet owner in need by paying for pet food or veterinary bills.

  • Contacting local animal control officers if they know about a pet living in a house that is abandoned.

Published Oct. 29, 2008


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