In Chicago, "best friends" are victims of recession, too

At PAWS Chicago adoption center, Mugsy, a seven-year-old Australian Shepherd with one eye blue and the other brown, grabs his tug-of-war toy and jumps in the air.

He wants to play.

His roommate, Babe, is more calm and docile. The eight-year-old collie sits quietly in the corner of her room.

"These are not the typical strays that you'd see in a well-balanced economy," say Rochelle Michalak, executive director of PAWS.

Animal shelter experts say more and more animals like Mugsy and Babe are becoming relinquished pets, given up by their owners who could no longer afford to take care of them.

Everything from beagles and pugs, to Great Danes and Labradors, are ending up in shelters. Thirty to 40 percent of the dogs at the adoption center are purebreds, Michalak says.

Like many other shelters across Chicago, PAWS is seeing an increase in animals that are healthy and house-trained, with well-groomed coats and who are comfortable around people.

"People are having to make very tough decisions," Michalak says, "between providing food and shelter for the family, or taking care of the cat or dog.

Pets like Babe are being abandoned by owners who can no longer afford then, animal shelter experts say. / By Natasha Wasinski

In times of economic distress, "cats and dogs are the first victims," she says.

PAWS has an average of 300 cats and dogs in its intake and adoption program at any given time. Staff began noticing a trend of pet owners facing financial problems in early 2008.

By March, PAWS had set up two crisis response programs: one to provide temporary care for the pets of families going through a mortgage foreclosure, and another that would find a new permanent home for the animals.

Last year PAWS saved 3,000 animals through its adoption program. About 120 pets are in the temporary care program.

Now, Amy Anderson, of Chicago Canine Rescue, says, "We're definitely getting a lot of requests for relinquishments, and our acceptance rate for relinquishments is increasing."

But there has also been a spike in adoptions.

"January and February are typically the slowest months for adoptions, but I believe we've already adopted out about 50 dogs so far this year," she says.

January was an excellent month for adoption at the Anti-Cruelty Society, too, president Robyn Barbiers says, as more cats were adopted than the shelter received.  Three-hundred twenty-eight cats found homes that month.

While the society has not seen a significant increase in the number of surrendered animals, President Robyn Barbiers says the reasons people cite for giving up their pets are changing.

"They are economy-related reasons," Barbiers says, such as personal financial downsizing, foreclosure, or the inability to continue paying for pets.

More people who are going through a foreclosure are using the Society's short-term accommodation program, which originally assisted victims of domestic violence or people in extreme emergencies.

Barbiers says this particular program is meant to serve as foster and not permanent care, but the Society will accept animals from owners who can no longer care for them.

The worst thing owners can do is fully abandon their pets, Barbiers says. Many people believe that any cat can survive on the streets, she says, and this is not the case.

"It is not a good option," she says. "If you cannot take care of your pet, we are an open-door shelter. We will accept any animal."

In addition to supplying owners with temporary care, agencies are launching programs to help owners with the costs of caring for pets.

The Anti-Cruelty Society and PAWS offer low-cost, and sometimes free, spay and neuter surgery to lower-income pet owners.

Spaying and neutering is especially important right now, Michalak says. "The cost of caring for a litter is exacerbated in economically troubling times," she says.

The Red Door Shelter, which primarily hosts cats and rabbits, has had a food assistance program in place since its founding nine years ago, says office manager Matt Gannon. People can come by once a month to claim their free bag, he says.

Michalak says PAWS fed 130 animals by distributing 4,200 pounds of food to owners in the past four months.

The food program, and the others that provide assistance to financially-strapped pet owners, will continue "as long as needed," says Michalak.

That is comforting news for Roni Nakulski, who is struggling to pay her mortgage and takes advantage of the PAWS assistance programs.  

PAWS gave her a four-month supply of food for all five of her cats. She even has enough to share with her co-workers.

"People are afraid to ask for help," she says.

Many of Nakulski's cats are special needs, meaning they medication or require extra care.

She found one her felines, Amber, outside this past winter and took her to PAWS. They discovered she had an infection in her uterus and immediately treated her.

"PAWS saved her life for $35," Nakulski says.

Amber has behavioral and continued health problems and will return to the veterinarian next Wednesday for x-rays. She might have cancer.

"I've had animals my whole life," Nakuski says, "and there's always something new. But cancer, I've never dealt with."

She says she cannot find anyone who will treat Amber for less than $1,000. The medical costs, on top of caring for her other pets, are overwhelming.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Nakulski says.

All the shelters except for Anti-Cruelty Society have no-kill policies.