The other crisis: Pets losing their homes too

Last summer one family in northern California lost their home. They hurriedly packed what they’d decided to take with them, and drove to the dump with the rest. There they dropped off an old tired couch, and a brown Pit Bull mix. For several days the dog waited for her family to return. Tied to the couch she had no choice.

When she was finally discovered, she was dehydrated and very tired. Debbie Eaglebarger, caretaker of the local Corning, California shelter and the one who untied her, gave her something to eat and drink, and named her Summer.

Ralphie was left behind in an abandoned apartment when his owner was evicted.

There will always be people like Summer’s former owners, who get rid of their dogs thoughtlessly. But Eaglebarger says the number of dogs who’ve been hastily abandoned due to an eviction or loss of a home is on the rise. “The foreclosure crisis is hitting very hard here,” she says.

Shared suffering

For the past several months, reports about the deepening housing crisis have dominated the news. Much less well publicized is how it’s affecting the pet population. Tracking is spotty, but animal shelters from New York to California and everywhere in between are reporting more pets being surrendered in spots particularly hard hit by housing problems.

“We are definitely seeing more people bringing dogs in because they’re moving,” says Sharon Harvey, Executive Director of the Cleveland Animal Protective League in Ohio, where some 150,000 homes went into foreclosure last year.

While one in 10 homes across the country are underwater, meaning the house is worth less than the mortage, that ratio is much higher in Ohio. “When these people are giving up their animals they don’t always say it’s due to foreclosure,” says Harvey, “but often it’s pretty clear that’s what’s happening.”

In Sacramento, California, which has the nation’s fifth highest foreclosure rate, the rate of animal surrender from September to December of 2007 increased by 130 percent over the same time period the year before.

No more room for a pet

“Moving” has always been among the top reasons owners list for turning in their pets to a shelter. But this crisis is affecting even those who’d never dreamed of giving up their pets. Owners forced to sell their homes don’t have many options. They may find themselves sharing scarce space with friends or family, or dealing with landlords who’d rather accept the tenant who doesn’t have a cat or dog. Suddenly, there’s no room in their life anymore for a pet.

The luckiest animals have owners able to find them new homes. But even being taken to a shelter is better than the alternative. Animals left behind rarely have a chance. “The trend seems to be that once abandoned, banks or owners of these properties are finding the animals and calling their local animal welfare facility to help assist in taking care of them,” says Stephen Zawistowski, Executive Vice President at the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

And what investigators find isn’t pretty. By the time a neighbor or landlord notices that a pet has been left behind, it can be too late. Frequently, the dog or cat is found in grave condition — too weak to move or suffering kidney failure or dead.

Evidence of the fear and pain they experience in the last days of their lives show up in scratch marks on doors and bite marks around windows. “It’s not uncommon to find chewed-up bits of carpet and wallboard — they’ll try to eat anything,” says Stephanie Shain, of the Humane Society of the United States. “Animals left behind become absolutely desperate.”

Unable to fend for themselves

While some animals are left behind in homes, others are let loose on the streets without any means of finding food or protection. “No matter what time of year, we find puppies, pregnant dogs, and cats trying to fend for themselves,” says Kristine Schmidt, of Pet Rescue of Mercer in New Jersey. “Old and sick dogs are the worst victims.”

So upsetting though it is, shelter administrators encourage displaced owners to bring their pets to a shelter. “We are not here to judge — nobody’s making a value judgment,” says Harvey. “We would much rather have you bring your animal to us then have to go find an animal who is half-starved and traumatized.”

Summer arrives

Summer turned out to be among the lucky ones. Eaglebarger was able to find the once fearful dog a new home. The pit mix, who has blossomed into a wag-friendly dog, now lives permanently with her new family, a couple, in San Francisco.

Eaglebarger tries to help people on the verge of losing their homes find new ones, and there are options (See Averting a pet’s housing crisis). But she also recommends bring your dog to a shelter if all else fails. “It’s much better than leaving your dog on the side of the road to starve, get into a fight, or be hit by a car,” she says, “or be thrown in a dump.”