In the past, when Theresa Shikitino ran short of cash and kibble, she sometimes fed "mac and meatballs" to Sylvester the cat and Romeo, her Golden Retriever, to make sure they wouldn't go hungry.

Her pets are "like family," Shikitino said the other day as she stood in line at the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry in Prospect Park, in lower Delaware County.

The 60-year-old Crum Lynne woman is one of many who have turned to the pantry not only for help putting food on the table, but to help feed beloved animals.

Since August, Loaves and Fishes, a food bank that serves 15,000 needy clients, has also been operating a second food bank - for those clients' pets.

The need had become painfully clear.

"We were very well aware our clients were taking the food we gave them for themselves and giving it to their pets," said Linda K. Freeman, director of Loaves and Fishes.

When the Delaware County SPCA approached her to start a pilot pet pantry, Freeman said, she jumped at the chance. "For people who are living a challenged life financially, they need help in so many different ways," she said. "Their pets are their companions."

Food banks to help low-income people feed pets have turned up around the country for a decade or more. But in this, the deepest recession since the 1930s, they are on the increase.

Some are affiliated with local animal shelters; others with human-food pantries such as Loaves and Fishes. Still others offer pet food only. All answer a need that seems to be growing: pet owners who, while trying to cope with their own lean times, cannot bear the thought of their pets going hungry.

For the Media-based SPCA, the pet pantry increases the odds of keeping animals in loving homes. Too often, SPCA staffers have seen what surrendering a pet for financial reasons does to its owner.

"It is a hard decision to come in here and turn the animals over because [families] didn't get a paycheck," says Justina Calgiano, a spokeswoman for the SPCA branch. "We see these people break down in front of us."

The pantry currently supplements the diets of some 60 cats and 40 dogs. Each month, Loaves and Fishes provides eligible families with one or two cans of wet food, and a quart-size bag of dry.

The rations are marked, stored, and distributed separately from the human food. Pink stickers advise pet owners of the shelter's low-cost veterinary care programs.

"People who have pets should not have to give them up because they are poor," said volunteer Paula Brown, 68, of Glenolden, in charge of pet food distribution.

Brown pulled out two cans of cat food and some kibble and handed them over to Marvin Payne, 55, of Morton. The disabled father of three said the supply would help feed his family pet, Miss Kitty.

"With food stamps, you can't buy cat food," Payne said.

Jo-Ann Zoll, vice president of the SPCA's board, said the program is part of the facility's new mission. The animal shelter is expanding its educational and outreach programs, and in July announced it would become a "no-kill" shelter, forgoing animal-control contracts with municipalities in 2011. The shelter is focusing on getting animals adopted instead of euthanizing them.

In Bethlehem, Pa., a pet pantry has operated for six years. As president of the Animal Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley, Margie Segaline says she knew the recession was on its way before the government announced it - people had started dumping their animals in state parks.

Her food bank serves five counties, including Bucks, along with part of New Jersey. It once helped feed 150 animals each week; now it reports helping feed 1,200. Its all-volunteer workforce operates from the Northampton Community College campus and distributes about two weeks' pet food to each client once a month.

The food bank's purpose is spelled out on its website: "For pets of individuals and families in ongoing financial crisis or who have low income."

Segaline said, "We've kept thousands [of pets] in their homes."

The Pennsylvania SPCA, on East Erie Avenue in Philadelphia, also offers food aid to families with pets on a case-by-case basis, said spokeswoman Wendy A. Marano.

Faithful Friends, a Wilmington-based animal shelter, began giving pet food to needy patrons about three years ago. The facility also refers pet owners to other social services and human food banks if needed.

A big pet-store chain also contributes. Last month, the Petco Foundation hosted a national pet food drive, and four Philadelphia-area Petco stores sent donations to the Pennsylvania SPCA.

The Petco Foundation, the charitable arm of the pet store, is involved with about 700 pet food banks nationally, said Paul Jolly, vice president.

"When we first started doing this, the specific pet food pantries were few and far between," said Jolly. Now, he estimates, about half such sites are "pure pet-food banks" and not just adjuncts to human food pantries.

The company provides seed funds to help organizations start pet-food pantries and also donates food. Jolly said people typically used the services for about three to six months until they were back on their feet, financially speaking.

That might describe Jessica D'Ambrosia, 31, of Prospect Park, who started frequenting Loaves and Fishes for the "little extra help" she said it provides her young family.

Though her husband works full-time unloading cargo at Philadelphia International Airport, D'Ambrosia said they took to skipping meals when things were tight. But they always made sure their two children and their feline friend, Sassy, were fed.

When she learned of Loaves and Fishes' pet pantry, D'Ambrosia said, "Oh, wow, this might save us a lot of money." She said the savings would offset some of the family's other bills.

Shikitino, who worked as a waitress in Center City for many years - 20 at the Reading Terminal Market - is now on disability. She says her fixed income is all the family has had since her husband, Mark DiSalvatore, was laid off from his sales job. Their 22-year-old son is also disabled.

She left Loaves and Fishes the other day with her hands full: Besides a box filled with canned vegetables and meats, pastas, soups, cereals, and peanut butter for her family, Shikitino took home Alpo and Purina Cat Chow for their furry friends.

"It is really tough on the family right now," she said. But as tight as things are, she and DiSalvatore say they would still sacrifice some of their own food if that was the only way to feed Romeo and Sylvester.

"They will never starve," her husband said, "by hook, nook, or cranny."

Contact staff writer Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149 or mschaefer@phillynews.com.