March 17, 2010

Pets caught in squeeze


— By

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Gordon Chibroski

click image to enlarge


Gordon Chibroski

Staff Writer

People who have lost their homes to foreclosure have had to give their cats to animal shelters. Dog owners are cutting back on how often they send their pets to day care, or pay to have them walked. And pet owners are cutting costs by switching to more affordable pet food and putting off some preventive pet health care, such as tooth cleaning.

Mainers, like other Americans, are paying higher prices for gas, heating oil and food and worrying about the prospect of layoffs and home foreclosures. And as they grapple with the uncertain economy, they say they are having to economize on spending not only for themselves but also for their pets.

That's in line with the findings of a new national survey on how pet owners are responding to the economic downturn. The results of the survey, conducted in December, were released at a recent conference of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The survey found that most respondents said they would cut back on pet walkers, toys and grooming if they faced financial problems and that one-third also might cut back on veterinarian visits and preventive health care.

''Without a doubt, this (economy) is impacting people,'' said Joann Wallace, a member of the board of directors of the Homeless Animal Rescue Team of Maine, or HART, a nonprofit cat shelter and adoption center in Cumberland.

Recently, Wallace said, the shelter took in cats from two families who lost their homes to foreclosure and moved to rental places that didn't allow pets. HART also was expecting two more cats from a couple on a fixed income who could no longer afford to keep their pets, she said.

HART shelters 100 to 135 cats on a regular basis, with more in foster homes.

''We have seen more cats brought in due to the economy,'' said Marcia Carr, president of HART. ''It is harder for people to keep their pets, feed them and provide proper veterinarian care.''

Most pet owners aren't in such desperate situations, but many are cutting back on discretionary spending on pets.

Libby Thorman, owner of The Hound Lounge, a dog day-care service she runs at her home in South Portland, said, ''A couple of my clients have had to cut back on doggie day care because of the price of heating oil.''

She used to care for 14 dogs a day, but the number recently has declined to about 10.

She charges $22 per day or $15 per half day for each dog. The fee can be reduced to $20 a day if clients pay for 10 visits.

Beth-Marie Stacey of Portland, one of Thorman's clients, said she is one of those who have had to scale back.

Stacey works full time as a staff recruiter in a personnel business. She would love to have her dog Sam, a husky-German shepherd mix, spend several days a week with Thorman, but now she can afford only a day or two.

Stacey also used to pay a professional dog walker $15 a day to walk Sam, but she gave that up after finding a teenager in her neighborhood who will take Sam along for $5 when he goes for a job.

''I'm learning about the money, the luxury versus the necessity and how you budget for an animal,'' Stacey said.

Louise Daigle, who owns The Leash We Can Do, a Portland dog-walking service now in its 10th year, joked that she thinks of the economic downturn as: ''I lose my job because you lose your job.''

Watching four of her charges romp around a public dog park on Valley Street in Portland on Friday, Daigle said she lost a couple of clients who were laid off from their jobs.

So far she has found other clients to replace them, but she said her profits have declined because of the high price of gas. She spends $300 a month driving her van to clients' homes so she can walk their dogs, she said. She had to raise her fee by $1 last year to try to cover costs and now charges $15 per daily walk.

Also at the dog park Friday was Sabine McElrath with Nutmeg, her boxer. McElrath, a real estate agent who lives in Old Orchard Beach, said she had to cut back on expenses for her dog. For example, she buys dog food that costs $30 per bag instead of the $60-per-bag food a vererinarian recommended as ideal.

McElrath and others said they can't afford preventive care such as tooth cleaning.

Wallace, with the HART shelter, also worries that owners might have to skip their pets' annual veterinary checkups and vaccines.

''If you're behind the eight-ball when it comes to paying your rent or putting food on the table, the vaccine for the cat is going to come farther down the list,'' Wallace said.

Attempts to reach several veterinarians were not successful, but William Bell, executive director of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, said he has not heard any reports from Maine veterinarians of such visits dropping off.

And Fetch, a specialty pet supply store in Portland's Old Port, has not seen business decrease with the economic downturn, owner Kathy Palmer said.

She speculated that as Mainers cut back on more expensive things, such as vacations, they may be compensating by buying smaller treats for themselves and their pets.

''It's an opportunity to go out and buy a new toy for the dog,'' she said.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at:

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