Economic Woes, Foreclosures, Hurt Pets, Too

by kespeland on May 9, 2008

At the Kentucky Humane Society shelter near Louisville, every dog kennel is occupied. The puppy room is full. And row after row of cages house piles of mewing kittens and curled up cats. Near the reception desk, a one year old golden retriever sits quietly in a holding tank, waiting to be processed. Taped to his cage is a note bearing the reason he’s here: “Owner could no longer afford to keep him.”

Mystery, the dog, waits at the Kentucky Human Society shelter to be adopted

“Compared to this time last year, we’ve seen about 142% increase in pets coming in, due to owners not being able to afford for them anymore.”

That’s Kentucky Humane Society spokeswoman Michelle Ray. She says it’s a struggle for staff to keep up with pets being dropped off. But Ray says she’d rather people bring their pets in than turn them loose.

“Obviously there are people going through financial hardships that can no longer care for their pets. So we’re at least glad to be a resource.”

So, one end of the demographic spectrum is struggling not only to keep feeding its pets but also to keep putting food on the table and gas in the tank. The other end of the spectrum is wealthy enough to lavish pets with organic food, trendy wardrobes, and spa trips. The American Pet Product Manufacturers Association forecasts that Americans will spend more than forty three billion dollars on pet products and services this year.

“Overall the market’s been growing 7% annually.”

That’s David Lummis. He analyzes the pet products market for the market research firm Packaged Facts.

“And when you’re looking at a market that large, almost $50 billion dollars, that’s pretty phenomenal.”

Lummis says the industry has proven to be recession-resistant. That’s partly because pet food, for example, isn’t a discretionary item. If you can keep your pet, you have to keep feeding it of course. But he also says there’s no limit to what wealthy pet owners will buy.

“When we talk about the dollar growth of the industry, what’s really going on there, almost completely, isn’t more volume of products being sold. It’s these higher income demographics accounting for a greater share of the spending, and spending far, far more than average.

For the many thousands of families facing foreclosure, however, expensive pet products are far out of reach. Kim Intino is in charge of animal sheltering for the Humane Society of the United States. She says the Humane Society doesn’t track statistics at individual shelters, but they do offer support and keep in close contact.

“And we have been seeing that shelters are experiencing an increase of animals being relinquished. And the majority of the reasons being given are ‘unable to afford the animal,” but I think the spike that’s being seen is the result of the foreclosures.”

Foreclosures have hit neighborhoods around the nation. Indiana’s housing authority reported that nearly 3 percent of home loans in the Hoosier state were in foreclosure last year. That puts Indiana in the country’s top ten in foreclosure rates. Kentucky sees fewer foreclosures, although nearly 500 homes have gone into foreclosure in Jefferson County alone. Intino says the pressure from foreclosures became so acute that the Humane Society established a special fund.

“We do have a foreclosure fund that shelters can apply to, either to help them with expenses due to their increase in animal intake, or to help the people who are needing to give up their animals.”

Intino says there’s been no shortage of applications for that funding. And the foreclosure crisis isn’t going away. In some communities, for example, Intino says foreclosures bring other consequences.

“California seems to be experiencing quite a housing issue. And I’ve seen a couple shelters discussing how they’re seeing surrenders of dogs being skyrocketing over the last few months, most people having to move into an apartment from their house.”

An apartment that doesn’t allow dogs. So, while experts expect more waves of foreclosures to crash over communities, the pet products industry probably won’t even feel a ripple. Not so for pets without deep pockets.

May is kitten season at the shelter

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