To keep pets in homes, animal welfare groups help owners

Linda Lombardi

AP – Early in May, Nydia Bonefont was concerned when her dog wouldn’t eat and seemed lethargic. She realised that Papi, a nine-year-old Beagle/Cavalier mix, must have hurt himself — he cried when he was touched. But she was without income to pay for vet care.

“I lost my job a while ago, and then the pandemic started,” she said. “I went in March to see the doctor for bronchitis and asthma, and he said that I have to stay home because I was high-risk.”

Fortunately, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has a clinic in her Brooklyn, New York, neighbourhood where she had taken Papi before. She got him some pain medication and free dog food there, and after a few days he was his old self again, running and playing with her son.

Many pet owners are finding themselves in financial straits during the pandemic. At the same time, there’s a growing recognition among animal welfare organisations that to help animals, they need to help struggling pet owners.

“Increasing access to healthcare and critical resources for pets that are living in poverty is the best way to keep pets out of the shelter,″ said president and CEO of the ASPCA Matt Bershadker. “If we can provide those services, we can keep animals in a home where they’re bonded and loved.”

An APSCA pet food distribution point in Bronx, New York. PHOTO: AP

Bershadker said the need is rising: “We estimate that another 4.2 million pets will likely enter poverty over the next six months as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and the ensuing economic fallout. That’s a 21 per cent increase in the number of pets living in poverty, bringing that to about 24.4 million pets living in poverty.”

Since it was launched in March, the ASPCA’s USD5 million COVID-19 Relief & Recovery Initiative has provided USD2 million in grant funding, set up new pet-food distribution centres in cities including Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Asheville, New Carolina, and helped more than 268,000 dogs, cats and horses nationwide, including distributing about 1,800 tonnes of food.

“In response to COVID-19, we put a lot of this work into hyperdrive,” said Bershadker. “We made grants to about 50 organisations across 30 states to support them as they navigate the crisis.”

Another organisation offering subsidised veterinary care to low-income pet owners is Mission Animal Hospital, a non-profit in Minnesota.

Executive Director Dr Susan Miller said the price of care is a common reason people give when surrendering their pets to shelters and rescues.

“They can’t afford it, so they think their only option is to surrender,” she said. “I believe that everyone is entitled to the relationship you can have with a pet, no matter what your finances, because I so strongly believe in what pets bring to our quality of life and our humanity.”

Mission opened up their subsidised price programme to anyone in need due to the pandemic.

“We’re seeing about 200-250 more pets per month due to COVID-related issues — so that would be 10-15 per cent more pets per month,” she said. “And that number’s only been getting larger month after month for the past four months.” Mission also has formed partnerships with organisations that distribute free pet food.

“We never had that before as a resource for our clients, but now we know we really need it,” Miller said. “We had a thousand pounds of food delivered a few days ago and it was gone in a little over two days.”

Bershadker noted that so far most shelters are not seeing an increase in surrendered pets. While they’re tracking this carefully – the potential for an eviction crisis is of particular concern – it’s not a surprise to him that even when people have to cut back, caring for their pets is a priority.

“We see people go to extraordinary lengths to keep and care for their pets,” he said. “I think that speaks to the power of the human-animal bond. They are part of the family.”

Bonefort agreed. “I don’t even use that word, ‘give him up.’ I don’t even want to put that phrase in my mouth,” she said. “He’s adorable, he’s my baby, he’s my companion. I love him so much.”