Economic Woes Affect Animals, Too

February 29, 2008

By Eric Davis, DVM

We’ve all heard about the mortgage crisis, but unless you hang out with shelter workers or live in an isolated area—where overwhelmed pet owners frequently drop off unwanted animals—you may miss the economic effect on animals.

As a veterinarian who lives in the California mountains, east of Salinas, I've seen evidence of this animal welfare dilemma grow.

It is so sad for families, many with children, to feel that they have to give up a beloved pet just to find a place to live. Of course, this also adds to the burden of the already overtaxed shelters and decreases the chances of animals finding adoptive homes.

At least the dogs and cats who are surrendered to the county have a place to go. Many other distressed families simply dump their pets on a country road to fend for themselves.

That is how we ended up with a family of Chihuahuas.

A community effort

Joanie Campagno and Chihuahuas
Joanie Campagno with rescued Chihuahuas.
Ila Davis

Old Stage Road winds up into the Gavilan Mountains, east of Salinas. It is a peaceful place, but its isolation encourages people to leave what they don’t want by the side of the road, including pets. In a recent case, that meant a family of seven chihuahuas.

Late one afternoon, our neighbors saw a pickup truck stop under a eucalyptus tree, drop a box and speed away. Soon, the frightened and confused little dogs jumped out and started running down the road.

Fortunately, the residents of the Old Stage canyon include a registered veterinary technician who works at the Monterey County shelter, the veterinarian for Monterey County, a farrier and other families who care deeply about the welfare of animals.

The community went into action. Neighbors called neighbors. Dog cookies and leashes came out. Before long, four of the little dogs were surrounded and coaxed into cars and cages. They spent the night at our house—the de facto community shelter/intensive care unit—until they could go to the shelter the next day.

The other three ran into the brush. Fortunately, the little escapees were caught in humane traps before they encountered any of the coyotes, mountain lions or hawks who live in the hills and ravines.

Once in the house, it was obvious that these dogs had been somebody’s pets. They were friendly and just wanted to be patted and held.

They even got along well with our much larger dogs. Of course, both Ginger and Fred are rescues. We could just imagine them telling their tiny guests, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right. These people will be good to you.” And Fred would add, “But don’t touch any of my toys.”

Hard times ahead

Most well-socialized small dogs get adopted though a network of shelters on the San Francisco peninsula. It’s just sad that they had to go through this experience in the first place and that many other pets put out by an economic downturn won’t be so lucky.

Even in one of the richest parts of the United States, foreclosure happens. Salinas, despite its reputation as a wealthy area, is also home to large numbers of agricultural field hands, waiters, maids and construction workers. Many are immigrants, and all work due to the recent economy.

My wife, who is the shelter veterinarian for the City of Salinas, keeps me apprised of this situation. She made a comment the other day about how 200 more pets were left at the shelter in February this year than in February 2007. When I asked why, her response was that “people are losing their homes, of course!”

The most common reasons for the surrender of pets in this area have become: “We have to move due to foreclosure,” and “We can’t find an apartment that will take pets.”

Dr. Eric Davis developed the HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) program in 1995 and has served as mentor and inspiration to hundreds of young veterinary professionals over the years. He continues his hard work in the field and is currently a consultant for the program.