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Why people give up beloved pets

The sad truth about pet surrender, plus how to keep owners and animals together

By Donna Jackel for Next Avenue

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Alan Killough lost his job around the same time the family cat had kittens. Reluctantly, he and his wife, Lisa Harrison, both 56, took the litter to the nearby Downey Animal Care Center in Downey, Calif.

Bernice Osorto, an employee of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), greeted the couple. She asked why they were surrendering the kittens and offered an alternate plan: If Killough and Harrison would take the four kittens back home and care for them until they were old enough to be spayed and neutered, the ASPCA would pay for the surgeries and help re-home them (the term for finding a new, suitable place for a pet to live).

“It was a big relief that we were able to get help for them,” says Harrison. “They were like our children and we did not have the ability to take care of them.”

Osorto is a manager for the ASPCA’s Safety Net program, which offers free and low-cost services to those struggling to care for their pets, such as paying pet deposits for apartment rentals, referring clients to low-cost veterinary care and distributing vouchers for free sterilization. Over the past 18 months, the Los Angeles Safety Net program has provided medical care to 1,436 pets and offered 1,744 free or low-cost spay/neuter vouchers. The ASPCA also awards grants to animal welfare organizations in other cities.

Who’s at risk

To better understand who is re-homing pets and why, the ASPCA recently conducted a national survey. Of the 12,245 households called, 9,970 were current or past dog or cat owners. Six percent of this group had re-homed or surrendered a pet within the past five years. Thirty-seven percent of those animals were given to a friend or family member and 36 percent to animal shelters.

Renters and those with an annual income of $50,000 or less are at greatest risk of becoming unable to care for their pets. The latter group includes many older Americans; in 2012, people aged 65 and older had an average income of $31,742, according to an AARP Public Policy Institute analysis of Census Bureau data.

When study participants were asked which pet services might have helped them most:

  • 40 percent said free or low-cost vet care

  • 34 percent said free or low-cost training

  • 30 said access to pet friendly housing

  • 30 percent said free or low-cost spay/neuter

Traditional efforts to reduce animal homelessness have targeted helping shelter animals. “This research shows we need to focus equally on preventing animals from entering shelters in the first place by helping owners access critical resources,” said Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA. “When pets are kept out of shelters, it protects those animals, keeps families together and frees up critical shelter space and supplies for other animals in need.”

The need for pet-friendly housing

Pet-friendly housing is a problem nationwide, acknowledges Bershadker. The ASPCA is working with the government and private housing developers to increase the number of pet-friendly rental units.

There is good news for older people: more assisted living facilities are pet-friendly, says Jennifer Devine, regional director of business development for Caring People Home Health Care, a licensed home care agency headquartered in Islip, NY.

Devine, a social worker and an animal lover, believes older people and their pets belong together. “Pets give the elderly a sense of purpose, companionship, something to cuddle with,” she says. “A pet motivates someone in the hospital or rehab to get well.” Also, Devine notes, pets help with loneliness and depression and “give people a reason to get up in the morning.”

Creating a safety net

For many older pet owners, however, there comes a time when they need help caring for their pets. It may be a temporary situation — like being unable to bend down to clean a litterbox while recuperating from hip replacement surgery — or permanent conditions like Alzheimer’s or decreased mobility, Devine says.

“Having a home health aide or caregiver who understands the value of the pet and is willing to help care for it is huge,” she says, offering these suggestions to keep older pet owners and their beloved animals together:

  • Find a foster family to take in pets while the owner is hospitalized

  • Hire a dog walker

  • Locate a fence company willing to install fencing at a discount so the dog can access the backyard

  • Plan ahead; many pets end up in a shelter when their owners become disabled or die

For the last point, have an elder attorney draw up a pet trust — a legal arrangement that provides for the care and maintenance of one or more companion animals in the event of their owner’s disability or death. Typically, a trustee will hold money “in trust” for the pet and the designated caregiver will receive payments regularly. The trust, depending on which state it is drawn up in, will continue for the life of the pet or 21 years, whichever occurs first.

Despite Bernice Osorto’s best efforts, many pets still land in the Downey Animal Care Center. Still, she has days where, with a simple fix, she can turn tears to smiles. A few months ago, for instance, a woman brought in her Cocker spaniel, Dodger, to surrender him. He had fleas and ticks and she couldn’t afford to treat them.

“I could see it wasn’t easy for her — her eyes were teary,” says Osorto. “We had Dodger seen by our vet that night and — with the help of a local group, Downtown Dog Rescue — we treated the yard to help with the tick issues and provided Dodger with a doghouse. Now, he is home and doing well.”

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