Many Americans are giving up their dogs and cats to animal shelters as the emotional bonds between people and pets get tested by economic ones.
From the Malvern man who turned his two dogs over in order to help pay for his mother's cancer treatments, to the New York woman who euthanized her cat rather than keeping it alive with expensive medications, rising economic anxieties make it increasingly difficult for some pet owners to justify spending $1,000 a year or more on pet food, veterinary services and other costs.
The population growth at animal shelters in Connecticut, Nebraska, Texas, Utah and other states shows how the weak economy is also shrinking the pool of potential adopters. And it coincides with a drop-off in government funding and charitable donations.
The effect has been cramped quarters for dogs and cats, a faster rate of shelters euthanizing animals and some shelters turning away people looking to surrender pets, according to interviews with several shelters and animal advocates. Of the estimated 6 million to 8 million dogs and cats sent to animal shelters every year, half are euthanized and the rest adopted, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
"It's definitely discouraging for us," said Adam Goldfarb, a Humane Society spokesman. "One of our major goals is to develop and celebrate the bond between people and animals. It's so tragic when families reach a point when they can't afford to care for their pets."
With two children, a husband on disability and a difficult job search of her own, Mel Bail, 23, of Worcester, Mass., had begun feeding leftovers from family meals to her three cats before recently deciding to give them up.
"When I couldn't pay my gas bill, I knew I had to find another home for the cats," Bail said.
But it wasn't easy to find a shelter that would accept them. "They're completely full," said Bail, who ultimately turned to online classified ads to find homes for the cats.
No nationwide data are being collected on the reasons dogs and cats are being abandoned by their owners, but shelter managers and advocates for animals say the trend is undeniable - and probably a bigger phenomenon than they realize.
"People are embarrassed to admit that's why they're giving up their pets," said Betsy McFarland, the Humane Society's director of communications for companion animals.
An Associated Press-Petside. com poll found that one in seven owners nationwide reported reduced spending on their pets during the past year's recession. Of those cutting back, more than a quarter said they have seriously considered giving up their pet.
The average annual cost of owning a dog is about $1,400, and the average annual cost of a cat is about $1,000, according to a survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association. The survey suggests there are about 231 million pets - excluding fish - in more than 71 million homes in America.
In Omaha, Neb., the Nebraska Humane Society's shelter began tracking for the first time this year those pets given up because of financial constraints. Through mid-November, more than 275 pets were given up because their owners said they couldn't afford to keep them.
Among them are two 9-year-old miniature schnauzers, dropped off anonymously with a note that said their owners could no longer afford to keep them.
Humane Society spokeswoman Pam Wiese said the obedience-trained purebreds came into the shelter up-to-date on vaccinations and dental care, and were well-groomed.
"It is really sad, because for these people, it is not an excuse. They are absolutely stuck, and they need to downsize and there is no one to take the pets," she said. "You can tell these have been much-loved pets."
In New York, Erin Farrell-Talbot recently decided to euthanize her 15-year-old cat, Buki, when she was told within days of losing her job that he would need thousands of dollars in treatment and medications costing $65 a month.
"When it came down to whether I was going to charge food for the month of September or give medicine to my cat, that was a clear decision for me," Farrell-Talbot said. "It was horrible. It killed us."
The Animal Humane Association in Albuquerque, N.M., saw 69 dogs and cats turned over through September because the owners couldn't afford to keep them. That compares with 48 in the same period in 2007 - a 44 percent increase, said executive director Peggy Weigle.
In response, Weigle's shelter began a program to open its emergency pet shelter - normally reserved for battered women needing a place to keep their pets for a while - to those suffering financially. So far this year, 45 pets have been taken in through the emergency program, compared with eight the previous year.
The SPCA in Virginia Beach, Va., recently began a program called Help Out Pets Everywhere (HOPE) to provide food, medical care and temporary homes for pets belonging to families with financial difficulties.
The program received 18 applications in its first week. Some of those people have never experienced hardship until now, and therefore, neither have their pets, McNally said.
"It's been devastating," said Amy McNally, a spokeswoman for the program. "For somebody to say, 'I can't afford to feed my dog' - it's a humbling time." *