WASHINGTON - The US economic crisis is affecting not only Americans but is having an increasingly bitter effect on their pets as well.
An ever-greater number of US citizens can no longer care for their animals because they have lost their jobs or their houses. As many as one million dogs and cats are in danger of losing their homes, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Animal shelters in some southern states are already full.
Gary Weitzman points to a cage with three young shepherd puppies.
‘These puppies arrived today with a truck from North Carolina,’ said Weitzman, director of Animal Rescue League Washington. ‘Probably someone who lost his home.’
Weitzman’s organisation is the last refuge for dogs and cats from overflowing shelters in 13 states. His shelter in the nation’s capital currently holds 300 animals and more arrive every day.
‘The pressure is rising,’ he said with a sigh.
‘We are swamped with people who lost their jobs and their income,’ said Peggy Taylor, receptionist at the shelter.
The financial crisis is threatening to create a serious animal protection problem, warned Stephen Zawistowski, deputy director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). In the coming years, more than 6 million US house pets are likely to be threatened with some kind of distress in their lives, according to Time magazine.
About half of US households have at least one pet. Zawistowski warns that hundreds of thousands of animals are in danger of being abandoned or given to an animal shelter.
Pet owners who fall on hard times often don’t have the money to take care of their animals. Pets are not cheap. Keeping a cat costs about $1,200 a year; a dog costs about twice as much, said Nancy Peterson of the Humane Society, an animal protection organisation. A lot of owners are facing a heart-rending decision, Peterson said.
Abandoned animals typically end up in animal shelters. They are doubly burdened because fewer animals are adopted during a recession. In a survey conducted last November by the Internet animal placement organisation petfinder.com, more than half of the 12,500 shelters participating in the survey complained about fewer animal adoptions.
‘We believe that the situation is even worse,’ said Kim Saunders, vice president of petfinder.com.
At the same time, many shelters have fewer resources to take care of the animals. In the economic crisis the number of donors also shrinks.
‘We’ve lost half our income,’ Weitzman complained. His organisation exists largely on private donations.
Veterinarians are also feeling the effects of the weak economy. In order to save money, more and more pet owners avoid taking their animals for treatment and check-ups. Many animal clinics have fewer patients, said Jerry Bayer of the animal hospital VCA West End in Virginia. He is now frequently limited in his work.
‘Some owners want me to treat just part of the problem initially, then they come back after their next pay check,’ said Bayer.
Weitzman expanded his shelter to include a small hospital especially for house pets owned by people on low incomes.
‘It’s probably the only one in the US,’ he said proudly. Veterinarians work there for a fraction of the normal cost. The hospital is booked out weeks in advance.
Animal protection organisations are increasing their calls for donations to alleviate the suffering. The Humane Society has founded an emergency fund to help overflowing animal shelters with $100,000. Animal protection officials support owners so that they can keep their pets.
Every second animal in US animal shelters faces euthanasia. Owners therefore must exhaust all possibilities before turning them over to a shelter, said Peterson, adding that in hard times especially pets do us good.