‘Either me or the dog’ stresses shelters

Financial pressures in January are nothing new, but tough decisions are being made in many Northern Ireland homes amid the cost of living crisis.

Rescue organizations are reporting an increased demand as struggling pet owners deliver their animals.

They say many owners are struggling to meet basic needs like food and medicine as costs rise.

Carol Workman at Crosskennan Lane Animal Shelter in Antrim County says they operated a “one-on-one” system last year and are now in great demand after the Christmas period.

The sanctuary looks after a wide variety of animals including dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, goats and horses.

“It’s doubled for most this year, and for many people the only option they can think of is giving their pet to us,” he says.

A dog in a shelter kennel

Animal shelters feel pressure as owners can no longer afford to keep their pets

This is problematic as Crosskennan is often unable to help due to his own financial situation.

“We face the same problems as ordinary pet owners, but on a larger scale,” says Ms. Workman.

“Feed costs are rising steadily and it has become invaluable or impossible for us to buy simple things like cat litter.

“The washer and dryer are working all the time and in some places we had to invest in an electric radiator because our boiler broke down and had to be replaced completely, but we don’t have the budget for that.”

Ms Workman says owners contact the shelter regularly, requesting that they take sick pets that need medication on a regular basis.

“Many people we spoke to say they should give up their pets because they can’t afford the vet…so it’s a preventative move for many of the people we talk to, potentially without costing money.”

While staff try to help those in need, she describes the situation as “sad for everyone involved – the animals, their owners and the shelter -” but they had to be strict about the numbers.

“We offered budgeting help and helped with food donations as much as we could.

“The truth is, many people believe they’ll be fine financially if they get rid of their pets, and so they don’t want to accept anything but our adoption.”

Fiona McFarland, head of the Northern Ireland branch of the British Veterinary Medical Association, says reports from veterinarians who see animal welfare are at risk are increasingly concerned as owners delay seeking medical care due to financial concerns.

A cat examined by a veterinarian

Danielle Magee says some animals are abandoned to vets as owners struggle with medical costs

“Delaying treatment can lead to worsening problems, more medical care and expense, and potentially more pain for the animal, so we encourage owners to talk to their vet early if they have concerns,” she says.

“We encourage owners to talk to their veterinarian if they have concerns about costs, as they understand it’s a difficult time and can discuss different options to help owners make the best decision by considering all circumstances and keeping the pet’s well-being a priority.”

‘Drowning in numbers’

Danielle Magee of Friends of Rescue in Londonderry says her shelter has seen “definitely an increase” in people giving up their pets for maintenance costs.

“Unfortunately, those who surrender are sometimes left to a veterinarian and not picked up, especially because their medical bills cannot be met, and rescuers are left to pick up the pieces,” he says.

Friends of Rescue is entirely foster-based and says it’s lucky to avoid traditional shelter overheads, but says it’s still affected by high fuel costs as it transports animals across the country.

Ms Magee says the Dogs Trust’s decision to change its subsidized neutering plan for those with income-tested benefits had a “big impact” on recovery claims.

A dog with a cone collar

Costs associated with neutered pets have led to an influx of puppies, increasing demand for shelters.

The Dogs Trust told BBC News NI in May 2022 that it is making changes to the program, allowing it to “direct assistance in a more focused way”, including dogs in the rescue system such as those in Northern Ireland’s city council.

“By doing so, we are able to ensure that our funds are spent effectively and with maximum impact,” he said.

“We know that the cost of living crisis is affecting dog owners.

“Last year the Dogs Trust received more than 50,000 inquiries from desperate dog owners asking us to take their dogs – the highest number of annual transfer requests in our history,” he says.

Ms. Magee says her shelter’s costs of neutering have tripled, causing “double trouble”.

“This results in many people not being able to afford to have their dog neutered and more accidental puppies being produced, rescuers who pick up the pieces again when the puppies fail to sell and are delivered,” he says.

“We are all overwhelmed by the number of animals being delivered to the rescue and the shelter, the majority of the public doesn’t know that dogs are literally euthanized if the shelter is full, which is every day.

“Honestly it’s heartbreaking, we feel like a broken record.”

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