US & Canada

Furry victims of the recession

Shelter cat
Image caption Shelters often have a harder time finding homes for grown cats than kittens

On Saturday 21 August, International Homeless Animals' Day, pet-lovers around the world will hold vigils for and celebrations of their furry friends. But this year the celebrations have taken a more sombre tone.

The recession that has devastated so many families and individuals has affected their pets as well.

Across the US, the numbers of animals in pet shelters has swelled as owners find themselves unable to care for their pets.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals (ASPCA) estimates that in 2009, around a million pets were at risk of losing their homes.

When families are having a hard time making ends meets, many make the decision to relinquish their pets. Although most pets are passed on to friends and relatives, a large number end up in shelters.

Image caption Animal shelters have been overwhelmed as a result of the recession

Stephen Zawistowski, ASPCA science adviser, says it is not an easy decision.

"For people to relinquish a pet is a heartbreaking event," Mr Zawistowski says.

For many pet owners, he says, their animal makes their life "whole and liveable". Particularly for people under pressure at work, economically or otherwise, coming home to a pet can be a bright spot in an otherwise stressful day.

"They're the one individual you live with you that isn't judging you," Mr Zawistowski says.

"They're going to love you whether or not you got your bonus or whether or not you made a sale and got your commission today."

Budget woes

Several shelters have started animal food banks to help families on the verge of having to give up their pets.

"The opportunity to help that family stay whole is something you can feel good about," he says.

Image caption Pet food banks have helped some families keep their beloved pals

Some human food banks are also stocking pet food.

The recession has affected animal shelters financially as well as inflating their intakes. Shelters that rely on donations are finding it more difficult to raise funds.

Publicly funded shelters are having their budgets cut as governments try to make fewer tax dollars go further.

A brand-new shelter funded by the local council in Sacramento County, California, faced closure this year after just six months of operation due to budget cuts. The shelter survived, but its cash flow has dwindled and it is increasingly reliant on volunteers.

At the same time, with finances tight, fewer people are adopting pets, and many people are finding it hard to afford veterinary care, such as spaying, neutering and vaccinating.

That leaves animal shelters buckling under the pressure, with the International Society for Animal Rights (ISAR) reporting that increasingly shelters put four cats in a cage meant for one or two because they simply don't have enough space.

Social responsibility

Still, with so much human suffering, it may seem like a stretch to ask people to help four legged friends.

In response, Colleen Gedrich from ISAR, the group which organises International Homeless Animals' Day, quotes Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi who once said that a greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

Image caption For people with tight finances, pet vaccinations are one of the first things to go

"Our companion animals rely on us to care for them," Ms Gedrich says. "As a society, it is our responsibility to provide and protect the creatures that cannot do so on their own."

Mr Zawistowski of the ASPCA similarly dismisses concerns about people prioritising animals over needy people. He notes that only about 3% of the charitable dollar in the US goes to animal-related causes, including wildlife groups.

"It's not like you are taking food out of a baby's mouth and giving it to a dog," he says.

For many people, the pet is a crucial member of the family that needs looking after. Mr Zawistowski recalls that many of the people who didn't evacuate in Hurricane Katrina had stayed to take care of pets which were banned from the evacuation shelters.

"For very many people, the animals they live with are a significant part of their life," he says.

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