Pet Illnesses Pile On the Pressures for Jobless, Washington Animal Rescue League's Clinic

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

The doomed cat does not move as the woman who has been its companion for more than a dozen years stands beside the examination table and talks about suddenly being without a job and the money to care for her sick pet.

"Do I not make my car payment? Do I not make my mortgage payment? Or do I not take care of my cat?"

Hard times are proving hard on pets as well as the people who love them. People who say they've never asked for a handout are streaming through the doors of the pet clinic at the Washington Animal Rescue League.

The demand for free services has been so great that the clinic will see only the pets of people who have been unemployed for at least three months. And the crush of newly poor comes as donations to the private, nonprofit agency have fallen so sharply that staff hours have been reduced.

For many of the people making their first visit to the clinic, which provides low-cost veterinary care to the pets of low-income owners, having a beloved animal fall sick is the latest calamity in a year that has seen them booted from the middle class.

The woman with the cat is 40 years old, college educated and, until November, had always had a job.

"I'm so embarrassed. You cannot use my name. My neighbors think I still have my job," she says. "They say, 'How's work?' I move my car in the morning and park it three blocks away. None of my friends know I'm unemployed. I don't need a pity party from my friends."

She is choking up now. Eyes watering. Her cat lies still in the posture of a sphinx. Its matted orange fur is that of an animal without energy left to clean itself.

"I rescued him from a dumpster in Northern Virginia. He's been my little buddy, companion for almost 13 years now. He has congestion in his chest. He needs an X-ray. I could sink every single dollar I have into my cat, and then we'd be homeless."

The Rescue League says it has seen astronomical growth in first-time visits by the newly unemployed, and so many people are unable even to feed their pets that a pantry has been established to provide food. There has also been a sharp increase in the number of adopted pets that have been returned to the shelter by people who have lost their homes and aren't allowed to keep a dog or cat in their new apartment.

"They're just brokenhearted, because the last thing they want to do is give up their pets," said Lou Montgomery, who cares for animals at the shelter.

Veterinarian Nicole Eckholm emerges from the examining room after meeting with the woman and her cat.

"It's sad. It's hard to see it every day," she says. "I've seen so many people who used to be gainfully employed, and now they can't find a job."

She quickly tells the story of an elderly man who was laid off from his job and then evicted. He couldn't afford cat food, kitty litter or the drugs needed to keep his cat alive, so it was euthanized.

The woman's cat has been sent for an X-ray. Before the economic downturn, clinic clients were asked to pay a small fee for such things, but now very few of them have the money.

"She just said, 'I'd hoped I could come in and get some antibiotics and it would all be okay,' " Eckholm says, shaking her head wistfully. "I want to get her to leave the cat here overnight so that we can feed it with a tube, which she can't do at home."

The clinic is every bit the hospital for pets, with doctors and staff in white jackets and operating room scrubs. On this day, surgery is being done on adjoining tables in the operating room, one table for neutering animals, the other for more serious work.

When the X-rays arrive, Eckholm summons Janet Rosen, the clinic's medical director, from surgery, and they hunch over near a computer screen, using a pen as a pointer as they discuss the white mass in the chest of the orange cat.

Eckholm turns, walks with head bowed to the examining room and shuts the door to be alone with the woman and her cat. There is the sound of a muffled wail, and she emerges, asking for a box of tissues. A few minutes later, she leaves the woman and cat to be alone.

"Her cat has cancer," she says. "She's hysterical. I told her he should be put to sleep."

She consults quickly with another veterinarian, Solomon Perl, who steps briefly from surgery. Then she returns to the woman.

"She wants one more night with her cat," Eckholm explains afterward. "Dr. Perl will go to her house to put him to sleep tomorrow."

Through the windowpane of the examining room door, the woman is seen sitting by the examining table, one hand on her cat and her forehead pressing against the table in resignation.

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