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Friday, January 23, 2009

Bad Economic Times for People = Trouble for Pets

Bad Economic Times for People = Trouble for PetsThe Associated Press recently reported that,
"one in seven [pet] owners nationwide reported reduced spending on their pets during the past year's recession. Of those cutting back, more than a quarter said they have seriously considered giving up their pet." This article went on to explain that the average annual cost of owning a dog is $1,400; a cat, $1,000. Those are not easy numbers in an economy where every penny of our paychecks seems to be spoken for before reaching the bank account.

The expense of pet ownership is not a surprise. After all, any pet owner who has ever confronted an emergency vet bill certainly knows that pet ownership can be a real financial burden. But now, the question is not one of emergency – at least not in the sense of a cat getting hit by a car, or a dog overdosing on coffee beans (actually happened to my sister’s dog Viszla), or a Labrador needing a major surgical procedure for displaced hips. Those kinds of emergencies are heartbreaking, and pet owners always face hard choices about them. But now, we’re talking about a different kinds of emergencies for people and their pets: What happens when my house is foreclosed and the apartment I can afford doesn’t allow dogs? What happens when I have to work a second job to make ends meet, and I can’t afford a dog walker? What happens when, frankly, the burden of cat food, liter, routine flea and tick treatments, and veterinary services are just more than I can afford?

I faced a similar situation a few years ago when I went through a sudden divorce and lost my home. It was difficult enough to know what to do with myself, let alone the one year-old, 70 pound, retriever-Sheppard mix! 70 pounds of exuberant puppy who still liked to chew the occasional pair of underwear or the delectable couch pillow from time to time – how would I find a housing situation where I could keep this guy? What would I do with him when I was at work?

I was fortunate; my parents took us in until I could get back on my feet and find housing where he was allowed. He’s still with me at age four, and the love, companionship, and sense of security that he’s brought me are worth any sacrifice I may have made. However, I’m sure I could have been out of my parent’s house sooner if I hadn’t been looking for housing and work that would meet my financial needs as well as the needs of my pet.

In the process, of all this, I learned a few things to make pet ownership more affordable, and I’d like to share those tips with you here. However, I also recognize that even with practical approaches like these, keeping a pet sometimes does become just too burdensome, too difficult. While we all acknowledge that in an ideal world, a commitment to a pet is for life, people do get into situations that are so unexpected or out of control that the animal needs a new home. Also, people can become ill or have to escape an abusive situation. With that in mind, this article also provides tips for finding the best placement for your animals when crisis merits the extreme action of having to give up your pet.

Tips and Considerations to Make
Pet Ownership More Affordable:

  • Give up your gym membership before you give up your dog! Walking or jogging is good exercise, and the $50 a month you spend on a gym membership will cover dog food. It’s easier to re-join a gym when times get better than it is to get your pet back! Visit Hike with Your Dog to find dog friendly places to exercise in any of the fifty states.
  • Form a dog walking Co-op. A huge problem for (especially single) dog owners is what to do when we have to work a 14 hour day and it’s not possible to get home to take the dog out. Dog walkers and doggie daycare are expensive! A resourceful alternative is to find one or two people in the same situation and form a Co-op where you can exchange services. Think creatively – it doesn’t have to be a day by day exchange. I once knew someone who walked her neighbor’s dog every Wednesday afternoon in exchange for two consecutive weeks of vacation dog sitting in the summer. This worked out great for both of them, and went on for years.
  • In a crisis situation, such as having to flee your home due to a domestic violence situation, many animal shelters offer temporary housing for dogs, cats, and even exotics. Inquiring at your local shelter is a good place to start when there’s a true emergency such as domestic violence, fire, or hospitalization. The Humane Society of the United States provides an on-line directory of nationwide safe haven services on their website.
  • Keep your pet vaccinated to avoid fines and illness! Most shelters offer annual rabies clinics where they give this vital vaccination for free or at a greatly reduced rate. For example, Anne Arundel County Animal Control in Maryland offers this weekly, the price per pet only $5. Local animal shelters can usually provide information about similar programs in your area.
  • Spaying or neutering your pet is one of the best ways to keep costs down. After all, it avoids the pitfall of having, accidentally, more pets! Many shelters, and even some vet schools, offer spay/ neuter support or clinics, so you should inquire locally. Usually, these services can be provided for a discounted rate of $40 - $50 – services can be as much as five times that amount at a regular vet’s office. The national organization SpayUSA offers a list of reduced price services nationwide.
  • Finally, be practical. A long time ago, I decided that if I couldn’t afford a multi-vitamin for me, then Basil wasn’t getting any fancy supplements. On the other hand, I continued to feed him a quality dog food (even when I was eating PB&J for dinner) because I knew that the quality food would keep him healthy, which would prevent trips to the vet. The same went for preventative flea/tick medications and heartworm pills. I found the money for them because I knew they would prevent bigger problems. Believe me, your pet would rather be curled up next to you at night, after a dinner of slightly less-fancy food, than lying on a floor in a shelter somewhere. I speak for the dogs and cats here. Pets can go through the ups and downs of family life with us.

In addition to the tips I’ve given above, the ASPCA website offers some excellent, practical tips for making pet ownership affordable.

Before you give up your pet, consider the terrific physical and emotional benefits of having a dog or cat in your life. The Center for Disease Control shares some of these benefits on their website. Here are two notable quotes:

“...Pets can decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, [and] feelings of loneliness...”

“...Pets can increase your opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities, and opportunities for socialization...”

It’s hard to put a price on that. I know in my case, Basil has comforted many tears through my divorce, kept me company when I’ve been lonely, and has forced me to get up in the morning to walk and feed him when I didn’t have much other reason for getting out of bed.

Sometimes, though, there are situations where owning a pet becomes impossible. The safety of people comes first, obviously, and I know it must be hard for those who have to lose a pet because they’re leaving an abusive relationship. It’s also hard to admit for any reason that you’re unable to adequately provide food, shelter, and exercise for an animal that you love. Sometimes, what is actually the responsible thing to do – giving up the pet – may not appear responsible to others. I don’t think it’s a decision to make lightly, but sometimes it’s necessary. If it is necessary to give up your pet, you owe it yourself and your animal to handle the situation responsibly. I’ll never forget a story that a shelter worker told me: she got to work and found six cats in cages on the shelter doorstep, all dead or near dead from hypothermia. That's cruel, inhumane and inexcusable.

Strategies for Finding a Safe, Happy,
and Appropriate New Home for Your Pet:

  • Use networking among family and friends as your first resource for finding a home. And, no, I do not mean guilt tripping someone into taking your animal! I mean, put forth a word of mouth and email campaign to find the right home for your dog or cat. A friend of mine, Sarah, had to go through this when she found she couldn’t afford her one-year-old lab-pitbull mix. According to Sarah,

    “It just wasn’t fair. I probably shouldn’t have had the dog to begin with… she had too much energy and I couldn’t afford to work less. I didn’t have the time for her.”
    Sarah’s story has a happy ending, though.

    “I used email and contacted friends. I offered the dog, with her crate, bed, toys, and over a month’s supply of food. She was up to date on all her shots.”

    It took some time, but Sarah eventually found a family who lived on a three acre property to take the dog.

    “I visit her sometimes,” Sarah says, “and they send pictures.” She adds, “It’s for the best.”
  • Another great resource is a reputable breed rescue organization such as Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue or Persian and Himalayan Cat Rescue. This works best if you have a purebred animal, but sometimes the organization will accept a mix or “similar-type.” The reason this is a good resource is these organizations generally do not euthanize, foster dogs in temporary homes, and have an understanding of the kind of home your dog or cat will do best in.
  • Tell your veterinarian that you need to find a home for your pet. Vets (and veterinary assistants) see lots of pet owners every day and they know who the responsible owners are. This can be a great resource. The same goes for groomers, dog walkers, trainers, feed store owners, or any other professional who may know and like your pet.
  • The popular website Petfinder.com will not allow individuals to post pets there for adoption. However, Petfinder does offer a great search engine for finding animal welfare groups by zip code. Sometimes an animal welfare group may not be able to take your pet in, but will be willing to make a courtesy posting on Petfinder for you if they believe your animal is a good prospect for adoption.
  • Contact local shelters until you find someone willing to take your animal. Check for no-kill policies. Provide, if possible, a monetary donation to the shelter to help them support your dog or cat until they can place it. NEVER, ever just drop your pet on a shelter doorstep. In many states, that’s illegal and punishable with fines or jail time!
  • Be careful when giving away your pet! You don’t want your pet to end up in the wrong hands, so request references/ visit the home of anyone you’re going to give your pet to, even if the person claims to be a representative of a rescue organization. Do a little research. You are going to all this trouble to avoid having the pet meet an unhappy ending! It would be terrible to give your pet away and find out later that the home or organization was not what it claimed to be.

Needing to find an animal a new home is a very hard situation to be in, but it can have a happy ending. The right situation can come along like serendipity. Five-month-old SeamusRecently, I interviewed Alyson, a single woman in her fifties who has always loved animals (and has owned many pets) but has been without pets for a while because she's had to care for her mother. After her mother’s death, Alyson wished for a new animal, but part of her was still grieving and this held her back from rushing out to get one. Then, one afternoon, she was at an old friend’s house and mentioned that she’d been thinking of getting a pet. The friend encouraged her to take Jack, a litter-box trained Dwarf rabbit that the friend’s 14 year-old daughter just simply didn’t have much time for anymore. A first-time rabbit owner, Alyson quickly takes out her camera phone to show me a picture of Jack, saying,

“I saw him out in the garage and he was so cute and looked so lonely, I just thought, it’s time. And [Jack] really has personality. If he wants my attention, he jumps up and begs for affection. It’s good for everyone. My friend -- Jack's previous owner -- feels happy because she’d been plagued with guilt about the situation. She and her kids can come to visit. I’m happy to have this delightful pet. And Jack’s happy because I can’t get enough of him. Everyone’s happy.”

Finally, if you do find yourself in a situation where you have to give up an animal, you should honor that animal by putting yourself on pet probation. I’m not saying, never own a pet again, but I am saying, make yourself wait 3 – 5 years, until your life situation (financial, housing, etc.) is stable enough that you know you won’t get into the unfortunate position of having to part with an animal you love.

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