By Lisa Wade McCormick

October 28, 2008
Leanne Potts can't shake the painful image.

A distressed pet owner told Potts she'd lost her home and business and could no longer afford to take care of her beloved dog. The Chattanooga woman then asked Potts' organization to take her 8-year-old Basset Hound.

The story is one her animal rescue group in Tennessee is encountering often during these tough economic times.

"It was heartbreaking to take the dog from her," says Potts, president of Bellyrubs Basset Rescue, a non-profit group that finds homes for Bassett Hounds.

"This was a middle class woman who lived in a nice part of Chattanooga. She and her husband owned a restaurant and had taken out a second mortgage to start the business. The business failed and they lost everything."

Potts' group took the woman's Bassett Hound, but she had three other dogs. Another rescue group took one of the dogs.

"But the other two were older dogs," Potts says, adding they were 10 and 12-years-old. "They were on a lot medication for arthritis. The woman told us she couldn't afford that medication and couldn't find anyone to take those dogs."

That forced the woman to make a heart-wrenching decision.

"She put the older dogs down," Potts says, unable to mask the sadness in her voice. "She said she would not take them to the pound, she couldn't keep them or couldn't find any rescue group to take them. And she didn't want them to suffer without their medication. So she had them put down."

Potts worries that other pet owners in her area may soon be forced to make similar decisions.

"We've been hit really hard (economically)," she says. "Tennessee is leading the nation in personal bankruptcies. We're getting a lot more calls from individuals who want to give us their dogs because they're losing their homes.

"With all the foreclosures and job losses, the animals are the final victims," adds Potts, whose organization has rescued 71 dogs this year. That's a 50 percent increase since 2007. "They're the forgotten victims in all of this."

Animal rescue groups and shelters across the country echo Potts' concerns. Many tell they've seen an increase in the number of pet owners forced to give up their dogs and cats because of the ailing economy.

"We've seen a lot of that," says Kathy Burkley, executive director of the Humane Society of Westmoreland County in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. "A lot of people are either losing their homes or can't afford their homes."

Two people recently brought their dogs to Burkley's facility, which is a no-kill shelter. "They wanted to leave their two big dogs with us because they couldn't afford them anymore," Burkley says. "We asked them if they could give us a few days because we didn't have any space."

The people walked out, but left their dogs in the shelter's parking lot.

"We looked out the window and saw they had tied up those dogs to a telephone pole," Burkley says. "We couldn't get a license plate because they walked here."

This particular story, however, has a happy ending. "Both those dogs were adopted," Burkley says.

But some distraught pet owners simply leave their dogs and cats in their foreclosed homes when they're forced to move out.

"Our humane agents have seen that happen several times," Burkley says. "People leave their dogs and cats and walk away.

"Last week, we took in eight Jack Russell Terriers that were left in a house without food or water."

Burkley's facility has seen the impact of the tough economy in other ways.

"We run a clinic once a week where pet owners can bring in their animals for shots and check-ups," she said. "We've started to see people coming in with absolutely no money. When we ask them if they can afford to pay even $10, they say 'no.' Last Tuesday, we had two emergencies and the people had no money to give us."

Problems across the country

Across the country, the ailing economy is taking its toll on pet owners in central Oregon. learned the Humane Society in that area has seen an increase in the number of people forced to give up their animals because of foreclosures and job losses.

"Animals are the victims when finances are tight," says Lynne Ouchida, community outreach coordinator for the Humane Society of Central Oregon (HSCO). "Like all shelters across the nation, we have felt the impact of the economy on animals and witnessed the tears when people have to give up their animals due to foreclosure."

Unlike other shelters, though, Ouchida's facility isn't seeing pet owners give up just one animal.

"What we're getting is people turning in multiple dogs, cats, birds, and small animals. They're giving up all the animals in their homes. This is something we used to rarely--if ever--see. But now, we're seeing people give multiple animals at one time."

Even horses in Ouchida's part of the country have become victims of the troubled economy. Many people in central Oregon own small ranches, and some of those ranchers are now abandoning their horses because of the high cost of hay and veterinary care, Ouchida says.

"Often times they do not consider the long term costs, and during difficult financial time, horses are found abandoned on public lands. This can also happen to long time ranch folks."

Some ranchers have even tried--unsuccessfully--to euthanize their horses because they can't afford to hire a veterinarian, Ouchida says.

Ouchida's shelter has seen another sign of the sagging economy--more people are asking for pet food.

"We provide pet food to the homeless, those needing assistance, and to seniors," she says. "These people need help with the food, but while we are receiving more requests for food--and our goal is to help people keep their animals--we are not getting the donations we need because of the downturn in the economy. In last year, we have seen huge drops in dog food and cat food donations."

Thanks to one philanthropic young girl, though, Ouchida's facility now has enough pet food to feed its animals.

In April, 12-year-old Mimi A. of Bend, Oregon, started the FreeKibble and FreeKibbleKat Web sites to help feed the hungry dogs at cats at Ouchida's shelter.

Mimi donates ten pieces of kibble for every person who goes to those Web sites and plays a trivia game.

She's partnered with pet food company Castor and Pollux. Their efforts have already provided over 49 million pieces of kibble to 11 shelters nationwide.

"Freekibble is truly helping to feed the 4,000 animals cared for each year (at our facility)," Ouchida says. "But it also allows us to support our pet food program for those in need. We distribute pet food and treats to those in need via Meals on Wheels, VFW LaPine Community Kitchen and Pantry, and local soup kitchens.

"We also help anyone who asks for pet food assistance via the phone or walks into our shelter."

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has also helped Ouchida's facility--and scores of other animal shelters and rescue groups nationwide--deal with the increasing number of animals they're seeing in this tight economy.

Earlier this year, the HSUS started a special foreclosure fund to help "establish, expand, or publicize services or programs that assist families in caring for their pets during the current economic crisis."

"We started seeing that pets were getting into trouble as people got into (financial) trouble," Nancy Peterson, manager of the HSUS's Feral Cat Program, told us. "I would say this is a national phenomenon. That doesn't mean every shelter in every community is effected to the same extent, but we know it's happening."

Under the program, animal shelters and rescue groups can apply for grants of up to $2,000.

"So far, we've given out about $80,000 to 46 organizations," Peterson says. "We seeded the grant with $15,000 and now have $105,000 thanks to the generosity of a lot of wonderful people. And we will continue to provide grants as long as we have money."

Animal groups that have received the grants appreciate the HSUS's generosityand say it will help them care for distressed animals and their owners in these difficult times.

"During this foreclosure and financial crisis we have noticed a marked increase in the number of people abandoning their pets," wrote Valerie Slamka, founder of A Purrfect World in New Jersey. Her organization received a $2,000 grant from the HSUS.

"We intend to use the grant to help educate people about viable alternatives, to expand our foster network to accommodate those in need of temporary assistance and, if necessary, find suitable homes for pets from our list of potential adopters."

The founder and president of the Community Partnership for Pets in North Carolina says her organization will use the $2,000 grant it received to help struggling pet owners.

"We will be using this grant to provide emergency veterinary care to low income families," said Mary Cervini. "Just the thought of an animal dying in the back of a car while the family is trying to negotiate a payment plan with the veterinarian's office is a terrible situation."

A pet owner in central Oregon, who recently received assistance from the humane society there, never forgot that act of kindness.

"She had come upon some tough times and couldn't feed her dog," Ouchida told us. "We gave her some dog food. And now that she's back on her feet, she wants to do a fundraiser to help us."

What you can do

In the meantime, officials with animal shelters and rescue groups offer the following advice to pet owners faced with a financial crisis:

Contact your local humane society or animal rescue group. "They probably have programs in place to assist people who come upon difficult times," Ouchida says. "Most have ways to help people. And the goal of animal welfare groups is to help people keep their's most stressful for animals to go home to home."

Never leave your pets in a foreclosed home. -"It is irresponsible and cruel and most likely illegal to abandon a pet," says the HSUS's Peterson. "A pet could linger there for a long time and die a slow and painful death."

Be proactive."If you're facing financial problems, deal with them," says Potts, president of the Bellyrubs Basset Rescue. "Talk to your lenders now, pay attention to these (presidential) candidates, and talk to your family and friends. And we tell people that if they take their pets to a shelter, the odds of their animals getting out are slim."

Try to keep vaccinations and flea treatments current. "But I know that if people don't have the money, they don't have the money," says Burkley, with the Humane Society of Westmoreland County. "The wellness part is just so important because you don't want your pets to get sick. We have people who skip that and find themselves and their pets in a worse situation--something more life threatening and expensive."

Don't be afraid to ask for help. "I have given some products free to people who don't have the money and say their dog is infested with fleas," Burkley says.

Animal lovers can also help struggling pets--and their owners--during these tough economic times by:

• Providing temporary housing for pets while their owners get settled;

• Supporting their local animal shelters by donating food, money, or time. Some children across the country have asked their family and friends to make donations to animal organizations instead of giving them presents for their birthdays, Christmas, or other holidays;

• Helping a pet owner in need by pay for their animals' food or veterinary bills;

• Contacting local animal control officers if they know about a pet living in a house that is abandoned.