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Neglected pets feel effect of economy as medical relinquishments rise

They say you’ll never understand until you have children.

In my case, it was a cat.

When I invited Tigerlilly - a tiny gray kitten found stuffed in a box on the side of the road -into my home, I was surprised how long it took to really invite her into my heart. I’d loved her, of course, ever since the first time I held her in my arms and she instantly began to purr. But I didn’t know her.

I didn’t know she would be a little monster, scampering around the house in the twilight hours and destroying the carpet so completely that my roommates and I will be moving out without the buffer of our security deposit. I didn’t know she would have such a sweet side, either, purr-meowing for my attention or licking my fingers dry whenever I held them out.

And I didn’t know that after almost one year together, she’d decide to eat a bouquet of flowers I’d received from my boyfriend’s mother.

As I sat in the veterinary exam room, not even having a chance to blink before my baby was whisked into emergency care, it all became perfectly clear. One year was not enough. Fifteen years wouldn’t be enough, but at least she’d live fully.

After what seemed like an eternity, the doctor came in and told me bluntly that even in a top-notch emergency animal hospital with round the clock care, Tigerlilly might not pull through.

“There’s still a good chance we could lose the patient,” she said.

Those words rang in my ears as I tried to keep track of what she was telling me. Something about stomach pumping and charcoal. My head was spinning. This was serious.

She left, and an attendant came in with more sobering news. Tiger’s chance at a second chance came with a hefty price tag: $2,244.68.

I was heartbroken. And alone in that sterile room, I cried the most honest tears a pet owner could, those of loving an animal like kin.

According to the American Pet Products Association and the 2009-10 National Pet Owners Survey, 62 percent of U.S. households have a pet, but a recent Associated Press/petside.com poll reported that only half of those owners consider their pets family.

Working off of the estimated population according to SANDAG and a formula developed by the American Veterinary Medical Association, Lt. Daniel DeSousa of the San Diego Department of Animal Services (DAS) estimated that there are 1.2 million pets - including cats, dogs, birds and horses - in San Diego County.

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, the San Diego Animal Welfare Coalition took 48,872 animals under its wing, and Jake Shakhman, marketing director for the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA, said medical affordability could be a growing reason why.

Though the Humane Society -which is responsible for 3,273 of the coalition’s total - has not seen a spike in the actual number of animals given up, Shakhman said, reasons for abandonment are changing.

“Four years ago, medical-related relinquishments were the fourth most common reason for giving up a pet on our campus,” Shakhman wrote in an e-mail. He continued to say that since then, medical-related reasons for relinquishment have jumped to the number two spot, following a family move.

While owners feel deeply for their pets, he said, it is possible they are not going to extreme medical measures to care for them in the recession.

His analysis rings true for the DAS as well.

“It absolutely has gotten worse in the current economy,” said DAS director Dawn Danielson. “It looks like there’s probably a 30 percent increase of animals that are coming in on intake that are sick or injured.”
That’s why, she said, the publicly-funded government agency began keeping track of how many pets were arriving in need of treatment at the start of the fiscal year in July.

“We are having to euthanize more animals that need treatment than we did before,” Danielson said. “We treat as many as we can, but we don’t have the resources to treat and get well every single animal that comes in. We’d be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Belen Durazo, a DAS employee of 26 years, said that job losses and unemployment lead to more intake, but really, the numbers result from an array of situations including divorce, illness and military conditions.

When the animal is sick or injured, she said, it can make things even more complicated.

“These animals are at the mercy of the public,” she said. “Most people’s hearts are set on a healthy pet to begin with.”

Making matters even worse, Durazo and Danielson said it is often difficult to receive accurate information upon intake, which is done jointly between the DAS and the Humane Society at the San Diego Campus for Animal Care.

“Owners can lie to us,” Durazo said. “They tell us half-truths about an animal’s behavior and health.”

Danielson said it is also common for owners to turn in their own pets as strays in order to avoid the required $40 relinquishment fee.

“A lot [of animals] are brought in as strays, but we know they are really owned by the person bringing them in,” she said.

While she admits the DAS can never know for sure, Danielson said there have been a handful of owners caught in these kinds of lies.

“No animal leaves our facility unless they are microchipped,” she said. “We have people turning in strays and we scan them and guess what? The person who turned it in as a stray [is] the owner. We call them up and say, ‘You know that stray you turned in? Well, you know, it’s microchipped to you.’ We send them a bill. Sometimes they pay and sometimes they don’t. It’s not worth taking people like that to small claims [court].”
For some - perhaps the other half of American animal owners who don’t consider pets as part of their family - Danielson said, the relinquishment experience can be emotionless.

“Sometimes it is very sad. Other times, we get the feeling that it’s not that important,” she said. “Even if they had the money, they probably wouldn’t spend it on the animal.”

Meanwhile, more attached pet owners are still facing a grave concern: What if the money isn’t there when it’s needed? Will they, too, turn their beloved pets over to the shelters?

According to Durazo, low-income veterinary care is rare and most facilities that can offer help are often unable to provide free or low-cost services.

“People don’t want to be taxed to death,” she said, and without taxes, government agencies like the DAS cannot do their work.

“It gets expensive,” Danielson said, adding that pet owners should understand that before they commit to a life with an animal. “It’s not going to be cheap, so make sure you can afford to have a pet.”

Also, she said, look into pet insurance. According to Danielson, pet insurance is a growing industry and one that pet owners should not shy away from.

Although it does make another bill to add to the pile, she said, many more pet owners would be able to afford care for their animals if they had an insurance policy.

“[Veterinary care is] difficult for people to budget for,” said Grant Biniasz of petinsurance.com. “They aren’t aware of how costly that can be.”

The good news, he said, is that pet insurance is more affordable than most people realize. But the key is to act before it is too late.

“It is more likely for people to get insurance if they’ve had an incident already, almost universally,” Biniasz said. “They say, ‘We’ll never go through that again.’ They don’t want finances to determine the level of care their pet receives.”

All too often, however, ailing pets are left either deserted or euthanized because their owners cannot cover the cost of their care.

Some animals and their owners are fortunate enough to get some help from charity organizations.

The Foundation for Animal Care and Education (FACE) is a local non-profit that gives assistance - up to $1,000 - to families with animals who have life-threatening medical needs.

Working solely off of donations and fundraisers, the organization’s first case came in 2007 when a greyhound named Aaron needed surgery for a fracture in his left leg, said Vanessa Ebbeling, a FACE volunteer.

FACE has helped 150 animals since then, Ebbeling said.

“Recently, demand has been higher. We get cases on an every day basis,” she said. “A lot of the callers we get are victims of the economy. They are choosing between euthanasia and taking on a bill that they can’t afford.”

Though too many animals still suffer, Shakhman remains optimistic about the ambitions of the Humane Society - and those who contribute to its goals.

“We don’t want to make people uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s our duty to be understanding.”

And to that end, he said, humans who turn in their pets are doing an understandable justice to their furry friends.
“The majority of people who leave pets with us, they do so because they love their animals, not because they are bad owners,” Shakhman said. “They trust that we will do the best thing for the animal.”

As for Tigerlilly, she’s an incredibly lucky cat. I was able to pay for her veterinary care through a credit loan and after four long days, two visits and a great deal of worrying, she came back home, good as new.

Thank God. I don’t know what I’d do without her.

Jennifer Reed is SDNN’s health and wellness editor. She can be reached at jennifer.reed(at)sdnn.com.