Programs assist pet owners facing tough times

NAVTA student chapters raising money for AAHA Helping Pets Fund
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Some pet owners are seeking temporary assistance to keep their companions through the economic downturn, and veterinary practices can refer them to a patchwork of programs that help with big veterinary bills or routine animal care.

The recession has increased demand and diminished resources for these programs, some of which operate through veterinary associations and colleges, but the programs still offer potential relief for pet owners who have lost a job or a home.

The American Animal Hospital Association reports that monthly inquiries have tripled for the AAHA Helping Pets Fund. Earlier this year, the AAHA Foundation briefly suspended grants from the fund. Student chapters of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America will be raising money during National Veterinary Technician Week (see story), Oct. 11-17, to help replenish the fund.

The balance also is low for the Lucky Fund at Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine, which is located in the state that currently has the nation's highest unemployment rate. Requests always exceed resources for New York Save Animals in Veterinary Emergency, a program of the New York City VMA. Nevertheless, these programs and others continue to assist with veterinary bills.

The increasing intake at some animal shelters gives a sense of the financial strain on many pet owners. In the spring, surveyed its 12,500 member shelters and rescue groups regarding the effects of the economic crisis. About 84 percent of 751 respondents reported receiving more pets in total as a result of the overall economic downturn, home foreclosures, or job losses.

AAHA Helping Pets Fund

Unemployed pet owners increasingly are the beneficiaries of grants from the AAHA Helping Pets Fund.

"Individuals who qualify because they're on unemployment—we used to get one once in a while; now that's probably the bulk of the people who qualify," said Tamara Fox, fund administrator.

Since its inception in 2005, the Helping Pets Fund has awarded about $800,000 to help about 3,000 pets receive treatment for illness or injury. The fund offers grants to AAHA-accredited hospitals of up to $500 annually toward the treatment of pets whose owners are experiencing financial hardship and up to $200 annually toward the treatment of abandoned pets.

"We're very proud of the fund as an association," said Jason Merrihew, spokesman for AAHA. "It's definitely something we want to grow so we can help more pets in need."

Grant applications have doubled recently, with the AAHA Foundation receiving between 50 and 60 applications per month. Fox said AAHA members also will call to ask about other sources of assistance with veterinary bills.

"They have 10 people asking them for help, and maybe we can help one or two," Fox said.

In 2006, AAHA first worked with the NAVTA student chapters to raise money for the Helping Pets Fund during National Veterinary Technician Week. Fox said AAHA hopes to make the fundraiser an annual event starting this year.

"So often students are looking for opportunities to give back," said Sandy Sponaugle, NAVTA communications director.

Sponaugle said the NAVTA student chapters frequently have held various fundraisers during National Veterinary Technician Week, which recognizes the role of veterinary technicians in animal health. For 2009, NAVTA student chapters will compete to see which school can raise the most money for the Helping Pets Fund. The winning chapter will receive a celebratory luncheon, courtesy of AAHA.

"At any time, there are pets in need of care, but now I think we are all looking for ways to help people who might be struggling in particular in this economy," Sponaugle said.

Information about the Helping Pets Fund and the NAVTA student chapters' fundraising competition are available at and

College, association funds

Veterinary organizations have created a number of small-scale programs to assist pet owners with veterinary bills. In certain cases, veterinary colleges will subsidize care for pets at teaching hospitals. Some state and local veterinary associations offer assistance within their areas.

Karen N. Potter and Floyd
Karen N. Potter, a fourth-year veterinary student at Michigan State University, helped Floyd during his orthopedic surgery this year. Floyd jumped from the back of his owner's stationary pick-up truck and suffered a spiral fracture of the tibia. The MSU Lucky Fund, primarily for pet owners who don't qualify for credit, helped pay for Floyd's surgery.

Administrators of the MSU Lucky Fund report an increase in requests for help subsidizing veterinary bills at the veterinary teaching hospital, particularly from pet owners who are out of work. Michigan's unemployment rate was 15 percent as of late August.

"The fund is pretty low right now," said Dr. Patrick H. LeBlanc, director of the MSU teaching hospital. "We've had to be selective."

The veterinary college began the Lucky Fund in 1995 with money left over from donations for the care of a stray dog that was hit by a car. The fund is mostly for pet owners who don't qualify for credit but whose animals are likely to recover completely.

"Everyone who gets money from it, no matter how small, seems to cherish the gift," Dr. LeBlanc said. "It's reserved for cases where they would normally be putting their dog or cat down."

Dr. LeBlanc said the fund subsidizes care in about 25 cases at the teaching hospital every year, with a typical case involving a car accident.

Applications have increased somewhat for the New York Save Animals in Veterinary Emergency program, which focuses only on emergency veterinary care.

"We're helping the same people that we have in the past," said Effie Cooper, director of development for NY SAVE. "It's just low-income New York City residents, and we can't possibly fund all of their needs."

The New York City VMA created NY SAVE in 1998. The program has assisted in more than 700 emergency cases so far. The limit on financial assistance is $2,000. Participating veterinarians bill NY SAVE at 80 percent of the regular rate. Pet owners can apply directly to the program or receive a referral from a veterinarian.

Cooper has to turn down three or four applicants every day. Ideally, she would like to expand the program substantially.

"Right now, every time I get a donation, I just use it up," she said.

Additional assistance

Along with veterinary organizations, other nonprofit groups subsidize veterinary care at the national and regional level. Some programs focus on specific species, breeds, or medical conditions. Many provide free or low-cost spay and neuter procedures and routine preventive medicine.

Spay USA, a national referral network for low-cost spay and neuter procedures, continues to receive about 1,000 calls per week, even though 15 states have started similar referral services based on the Spay USA model. Esther Mechler, Spay USA director, added that the network has received many more requests from participants for subsidies.

In addition to spay and neuter clinics, many full-service veterinary practices have joined the Spay USA network. These practices reduce the price for spay and neuter procedures for pets whose owners bring in a Spay USA referral certificate. Details are available here.

Mechler fears that pets are at the bottom of the list for financial outlays when owners face home foreclosure or a loss of income.

Pet owners can turn to humane organizations and other groups for help with animal care other than veterinary services. Programs range from pet food pantries to temporary foster care.

Kim Saunders, Petfinder vice president for shelter outreach and public relations, said Petfinder has encouraged animal lovers to donate to pet food pantries or provide foster homes for pets whose owners need temporary assistance.

According to the Petfinder survey, 47 percent of responding shelters and rescue groups said the primary economy-related reason for pet relinquishment was general financial difficulty. Eighteen percent said relocation was the driving economic factor, while 16 percent cited home foreclosure. In addition, 37 percent of respondents reported a decrease in adoptions over the past year.

To identify trends in shelter populations by region, the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy has been collecting data for the Shelter Population Index. The council gathered data from more than 500 agencies in the spring and summer, and it plans to release statistics by early next year.

The American Animal Hospital Association started the AAHA Helping Pets Fund in 2005 to provide grants to AAHA-accredited hospitals toward treatment of abandoned pets as well as pets whose owners are experiencing financial hardship. These three animals are among the 3,000 that have benefited from grants from the fund.

Marley's family brought him to a veterinary clinic after he suffered a broken jaw in an attack by another dog. He required intravenous feeding for two weeks as he healed. When the cost of care became too much for Marley's original family, the veterinary clinic found him a new home.
Goliath was found at the side of a road—hypothermic, unable to walk, and suffering from several abrasions. Although he was neutered, declawed, and microchipped, his owner could not be found even after an extensive search. A local veterinary clinic took in the cat and performed surgery for a fractured pelvis before finding him a new home.
Groucho suffered a fractured femur and lacerations from a brush with a car. A good Samaritan brought the stray cat to a local veterinary clinic. With help from several sources, including a grant from the AAHA Helping Pets Fund, the clinic provided surgery for the friendly feline. (Photos courtesy of the American Animal Hospital Association)

Lists of sources for assistance with veterinary bills and other animal care: