- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

Brownie, Sergeant, Sophia and Mia are new residents at the Loudoun County Animal Shelter, near Leesburg, Va. These dogs and cats are there for the same reason: Their owners are moving.

Most of the time, that’s code for owners losing their home and having to give up their pets as they move in with family or search for a rental home, shelter staffers say.

Abandoned pets increasingly are becoming victims of the struggling economy. In areas of the country hit hardest by the foreclosure wave, shelters are getting crowded, and in some cases owners abandon animals right along with the property.

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“They’ll leave the microwave and leave the pets, too,” said Stephen Zawistowski, executive vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Although no hard numbers are available on how many pets have become casualties of the financial crisis, Mr. Zawistowski points out that one in every 117 homeowners is in danger of losing a home, while 63 percent of homes have more than one pet. That adds up to hundreds of thousands of pets potentially abandoned.

While the Washington area is not experiencing the huge foreclosure wave seen in places such as California, Nevada and Florida, animals still are being surrendered under financial pressure.

Laura Rizer, community-outreach director for the Loudoun County shelter, said the number of animals entering care there has risen slightly over the past year, but the number of pets surrendered because owners were moving or could not afford them has risen by more than 25 percent.

“The reasons these pets are coming are not behavioral,” Ms. Rizer said. “We have also seen a 30 percent rise in the number of people asking for assistance from our [Companion Animal Resource Effort] program, which partners with the Department of Family Services to provide pet items to families with financial need.”

Amy Seymour, volunteer coordinator at the Loudoun County Animal Shelter, said most owners surrendering pets do it with a heavy heart.

“There was man who was in here this morning,” Ms. Seymour said last weekend. “He was just devastated. It is hard on the people. It is hard on the staff here. It’s not something that pet owners want to do.”

The Humane Society of the United States says that between 6 million and 8 million pets end up in shelters annually. Half eventually are adopted, and the other half are euthanized.

It doesn’t always take a home foreclosure for pets to become recession casualties. A job loss is enough to make owners look for savings, and food and medical expenses for a pet can be a prime target. The average cost of owning a dog is $1,400 a year, and caring for a cat costs about $1,000, according to the American Pet Products Association. A recent Associated Press-Petside.com poll showed that one in seven pet owners reported cutting back on spending money on their pets in the past year. Of those who said they were spending less, more than 25 percent said they had considered giving up their pet.

Situations like that were so common in the Virginia Beach area that the local SPCA began the HOPE — Help Out Pets Everywhere — program in November. The number of animals abandoned at the shelter was 129 in 2008, up from 51 the previous year. Meanwhile, 20 pet owners said they were losing their homes in 2007. In 2008, that number was 39.

The HOPE program provides pet owners in the Virginia Beach area with veterinary care and food for their pets. It also can provide foster care for families that are temporarily homeless.

Meanwhile, the Humane Society is providing grants to shelters, which can use the money to beef up resources for financially strapped pet owners.

“This is helping people keep their pets,” said Dawn Lauer, the Humane Society’s outreach coordinator. Ms. Lauer said the organization has given away $113,000 in shelter grants, which have been used for pet food banks, health care, foster programs, even paying pet deposits for people who are seeking rental homes.

Mr. Zawistowski said that thinking ahead can prevent a last-resort situation for homeowners who are forced to move. Usually, one can see a foreclosure coming. If that’s the case, he said, talk to friends and family familiar with your pets as early as possible. If that doesn’t result in a home, talk to your veterinarian and rescue groups, he said.

“They may be able to help provide foster care — while you look for housing that will take your pet,” he said. “It is helpful if they are kept up to date on vaccinations. This is also where obedience skills will make for better houseguests.” Mr. Zawistowski said Washington has an advantage compared with other areas of the country because it has a strong network of animal-rescue groups to help families in need. Those groups are getting more calls, he said.

“Rescue groups are acting as a buffer and absorbing some of the pets before they hit the main shelters,” Mr. Zawistowski said. “At some point, there will be a spillover.”

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