By Laurie Rich – Columbia News Service
When Deborah Thomas took her sickly 10-year-old cat, Armand, to a New York City vet last month, she learned the tan-and-white shorthair had kidney disease and needed to be hospitalized for three days. But the real shock came when she got a bill for $2,000.
“I’ve never spent $2,000 on anything in my life,” says Thomas, a part-time music teacher in the New York public schools.
Now, in addition to chipping away at this amount every month on her credit card, she’s paying $50 a week for medication to maintain the cat’s health. But she doesn’t know how much longer she can afford to give him this kind of care.
With the U.S. economy in shambles, those who used to be able to care for their pets financially are now drowning in other expenses. They’re stuck with tough decisions that pit their own welfare against that of their dog or cat, forcing many to abandon their pets.
But animal lovers can find ways to cut costs and minimize the burden so they don’t have to say a permanent farewell to Felix or Fido, say veterinarians and rescue organizations. They all recommend doing something that’s often embarrassing for those in dire straits — asking for help.
The economic downturn has overwhelmed animal shelters nationwide. Some 84 percent of the 11,000 shelters and rescue groups affiliated with Petfinder.com say they have received more animals because of the downturn for reasons including foreclosures, layoffs and “general financial difficulty.”
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals projected in February that from 500,000 to 1 million cats and dogs were at risk of becoming homeless.
The threat of overcrowding has spurred some shelters to find ways to help those at risk of abandoning their pets.
King Street Cats, a small, independent cat shelter in Alexandria, Va., started a pet food pantry and has helped board some pets until their owners can take care of them again. Keeping a pet in an owner’s home saves the group money.
Bettie Stephens called King Street in January to give away her two cats — Duckie and A.J., after being forced to vacate her house and move into an apartment that didn’t allow animals. Stephens had been put on indefinite unpaid leave from her government job and couldn’t afford her mortgage.
When she told shelter workers about her situation, they said they’d board the cats for free if she thought she could take them back soon. After relinquishing her pets, Stephens visited every weekend, which is when the shelter is open.
At the end of March, Stephens started working again. She moved back to her home recently and picked up the cats the next day.
For those looking to cut costs, there are ways to save on food and veterinary bills, animal experts say. Pet owners spent an average of $217 a year to feed their dogs and $188 for their cats, according to a 2007-2008 American Pet Products Association survey.
Just feeding an animal the right amount of food may reduce expenses, says Jason Merrihew, spokesman for the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). Many owners overfeed their pets, leading to obesity, which can result in costly medical problems.
For those who prefer to make their pets food, veterinary nutritionist Andrea Fascetti of the University of California-Davis recommends using recipes at acvn.org. But before changing a pet’s diet, owners should first talk to a veterinarian.
Many owners, however, find veterinary costs are the most difficult to swing.
Thomas, for example, continues to mull what she should do. She refuses to give Armand up and says he’s way too healthy otherwise to be put to sleep. She’s thinking of switching vets or getting a second opinion to see if giving the medicine once a week will suffice.
At Urban Veterinary Care in Chicago, customers are calling more rather than bringing their pets in for an office visit they’d have to pay for, says Adrian Garibay, a veterinary technician. Many are requesting only the basic vaccines and are holding off on getting X-rays and blood work, waiting to see if their pet recovers on its own.
Susan Nelson, a small-animal veterinarian at Kansas State University, offers tips for at-home care for some common ailments. For mild cuts: Trim hair near the wound, then cleanse it with mild soap and put on a triple-antibiotic skin ointment. For diarrhea: As long as pets do not have blood in their stool and are acting normally, just put them on a bland diet.