Animals & Money: Some sick pets lose medical care, homes in recession

Tammy Duckworth has special needs and is up for adoptionSome animal owners may be turning their sick or disabled dogs and cats in to shelters because they feel they can't afford them during the recession.

The Pittsburgh Post found recently that their local shelters are seeing lots of cats with broken legs or asthma. The editor wrote in to Al's Morning Meeting to say that the shelters say they think they've seen a greater percentage of animals with special medical needs since the recession. Their statistics were scarce, but it certainly adds up.

A survey in Veterinary Economics last fall found that half of pet owners would cut vet costs in a recession and 75% would cut pet supplies. In other words, people sensibly were more likely to cut expenses that just supported a pet's extravagant lifestyle. What's a luxury item for a dog? This week Unemploymentality featured a funny picture of a dog on the street with a sign "Will Work for Snausages" after the owner announced he was cutting out the beloved dog treat. Last fall the Kennel Club had another, much happier survey showing 96% of us would give up Starbucks -- something we mainly consider just a lifestyle splurge.

But the vet survey also makes sense. After all, people are trying to game their own health by delaying or rushing surgeries according to whether they hope they'll get health insurance or fear they'll lose it. Potentially money-saving surgeries like vasectomies are up, while luxury-like procedures such as Lasiks are down, Daniel Hamermesh pointed out.

With vet care, there are certainly procedures you could either do yourself -- like trimming nails -- or possibly put off. For example, do you need a rabies shot every year? Legally, it depends on where you live. Some outdated jurisdictions still require it every year even though it lasts much longer. A couple of top veterinary researchers are pushing for having rabies vaccines less often (because of its potential health risks) through the Rabies Challenge Fund. These vets want to push it to five, then seven years and use a blood test to determine whether a dog is immune or needs another shot -- something other countries already do.

Veterinary Economics, a trade magazine that I always find disarmingly money-grubbing, is pushing offering pet dentistry , sending out lots of reminders and other tips to keep up their income during the recession. When you think of vets pushing teeth cleaning (which requires general anesthesia and so is a big deal) as method to increase revenue, then you can certainly feel free to cut it out as a way to decrease spending (unless your dog is going under for some other reason).

Turning dogs and cats into shelters to avoid paying for their expensive injuries and illnesses is something else, of course. When you take a dog or cat in, they become part of your family, not a dispensable lifestyle accessory. I know there are lots of unemployed people out there who truly can no longer afford the expensive treatments they may have happily given their pets earlier. Some feel so overwhelmed by the illness, cost of car and financial situation, they choose euthanasia.

But I know that hidden in the numbers are also those who make a choice that medical treatments may be necessary for the pet, but the dog or cat himself is just a lifestyle option. Shelter workers are continually dumbfounded by people who drop off animals they've had for a decade or more, with the facile explanation that the dog doesn't fit in their lifestyle anymore. A lot of times this means they just had a kid. I got a forwarded email recently from a newish mom hoping to find a mythical house in the country for the senior dog who had been with the family since she was a puppy.

The same people who insist on getting a puppy for themselves seem to delude themselves that there is always somebody out there who wants to take a senior or disabled dog that they got tired of. Instead, they're likely just euthanized at the expense of taxpayers. Even in good times, about half of the 6 to 8 million dogs and cats left at shelters are euthanized every year, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Their changes have to be even lower at a time when shelters everywhere see more surrendered pets and fewer donations. Shelters are having to make hard choices about how many animals they can support and how adoptable a pet with an ongoing medical problem is.

The only bright side in this story is that there are some people who will go out of their way to take on these hard cases. The Pittsburgh Post found a heart-warming story of a woman specifically looking for forlorn three-legged cat -- to match her similarly disabled cat. The indispensable pet adoption website lets people search just for senior animals or those with special needs. And some rescue groups go to heroic lengths to save affectionate dogs and cats despite their conditions. Illinois Birddog Rescue even set up a blog for an English Spaniel they call Tammy Duckworth (pictured above) who was found with a heartworm and a leg that needed to be amputated. The group says that just rescuing a regular dog costs $300 to $500, but heartworm treatment can add $200 to $400 to the cost of treatment. Tammy's treatment is going to cost thousands. There aren't enough potential owners and rescue groups like these to go around.
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