Downturn putting bite on pet owners

Her greatest fear: that she could be forced to surrender the animals as she struggled to stretch her food stamps and Social Security income to meet the escalating cost of living.

Some hope was restored after she visited a local food pantry, which has started offering free pet food to help owners keep their animals out of shelters.

“I know a lot of people will probably say, ‘Well, if you don't have enough money to be able to feed your animals, that you shouldn't have pets,'” said Bardsley, 53, of Franklin, as Hunter played in the living room with three of her grandchildren.

But, she said, “just because financially you may go downhill a little or a lot, doesn't necessarily mean you have to give up the part of your family that you love.”

For some pet owners, though, there is little choice.

The rising costs of fuel, food and housing – and the rising tide of foreclosures – have generated a surge in requests for pet food from traditional food pantries and prompted some pet owners to give up their animals. Others are trying to save money by forgoing veterinary care.

The Animal Welfare League in Chicago Ridge, Ill., has seen the average number of pet owners getting monthly rations from its pet-food pantry increase by more than 50 percent since last year. Meanwhile, the number of people seeking service at its discounted veterinary clinic has more than doubled, said Linda Estrada, the group's director and president.

“We could do it every day if we had enough food. I mean, that's how bad it's gotten,” Estrada said. “The line goes all the way down the street” as pet owners gather once a month for supplies.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., a pet-food bank run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has seen demand spike by about 20 percent just in the past six months. The facility typically hands out about 5,000 pounds of free pet food a month.

“In the past, the demographics has been people who are disabled or on disability and senior citizens,” said executive director Lisa Carter. “Nowadays, during the pet-food program, I see people who are able-bodied and not able to find a job.”

The deepening foreclosure crisis also is having an effect. A growing number of pet owners are abandoning their pets or surrendering them to shelters after losing their homes or being forced into housing that doesn't allow animals, said Brian Adams, spokesman for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell Animal Medical Center.

“We've seen where people have abandoned dogs in the house, we've seen dogs that have been surviving for weeks on toilet water, we've seen dogs that have either been chained up outside or left in the yard when the people have left, we've seen cats who are just set free,” Adams said.

And some veterinarians have noted that more pet owners are trying to save money on medical treatments by passing up some options, including diagnostic tests.

“Where in the past they'd say: ‘Do anything that it takes,' they are now being more conscious about what will it take and then making those decisions,” said Dr. Steven Rowell, hospital director of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.