Friday, November 28, 2008

A dog's life in a bear market

by Chris Hart-Nibbrig

A nation in financial free-fall has forced many Americans to make some very heartbreaking decisions, including whether to give up the family dog. For these people, a job layoff or foreclosed home has meant moving across state lines, or into an apartment that does not accept pets, or with relatives who don't want or have the room or desire to accommodate a beloved furry relative.

When this happens, or when medical or veterinary bills override the ability to pay them, a painful choice confronts a family.

"We are definitely getting an increase in people having to surrender dogs because of the economy," says Kelly Hitz, Director of Public Relations of the Humane Society of Harrisburg. "For a lot of people, it is forcing tough decisions between food for animals, and food for children."

The economic crisis is too fresh to gauge precisely how it has economically affected the $30 billion annual pet buying, feeding, and caring industry, but an indication of how the recession is affecting the adoption of dogs in particular can be found by listening to the people who accept the surrendered and abandoned dogs on a daily basis.

"Yes, we have seen more surrenders," says Kerry Flanagan, Vice President of Humane League of Lancaster County. "We don't have an exact number [attributable to the downturn], but with people losing their homes and having to move into places that do not allow pets. Some people are not able to meet their own medical needs or the medical expenses of their pets."

Those expenses are not negligible. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has published estimates of the cost of adopting a dog in the first year between $1,300 to $1,800, depending on the size of the dog.

Lisa Conklin is the Director of Development for the Adams County, Pa, SPCA. "I did some calculations, and we are up 30% on dogs and 22% in cats compared to last year at this time," says Conklin. "We also have an increase in strays, although I don't have have precise numbers on them right now, but we're seeing more. We're finding more abandoned animals, some just dumped on the street."

"It really is the saddest thing," continues Conklin. i

Pet owners often aren't aware of what's available for pet support resources. "There are programs in place." says Hitz, of the Harrisburg Humane Society. "We have a pet food bank and low cost vaccines to ease the financial burden on pet owners. People just need to contact us."

Kerry Flanagan of the Lancaster Humane Society sells her product with the conviction of belief. "Our pets [are] wonderful!" Flanagan says. "They are vaccinated, spayed and neutered, micro-chipped, and given a leash. And they need homes."

Adams County's SPCA's, Lisa Conklin, is blunt about the problem of shelter overcrowding, especially during this economic downturn:

"Let's be real. Animal shelters are not primarily government funded. Adams County gives $11,000 to the SPCA. Another $16,000 comes from the municipalities. This is for a county of more than one hundred thousand people. People need to fund it and they have less money. It is slipping and slipping."

Conklin continues: "The bigger picture is we are farming a crop of animals – dogs -- that become unwanted throwaways. The farm breeding of animals is perpetuating this overflow at the shelters where the supply exceeds the demand. There is something wrong with this picture. You can find a pure bred at a shelter. The shelters are overflowing. We need to do better here as a society."