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Pets and Foreclosure

Nancy Peterson and Shelter Dog
Nancy Peterson and Shelter Dog (Veterinary Technician Magazine)
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Nancy Peterson
Issues Specialist and Feral Cat Project Manager, Humane Society of the United States
Wednesday, April 16, 2008; 11:00 AM

Nancy Peterson, an issues specialist with the Humane Society of The United States HSUS, will be online Wednesday, April 16, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss a largely hidden consequence of the housing meltdown: a spike in the number of animals being turned in or abandoned as families are forced from their homes.

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"As a result of foreclosures and the economic downturn, people aren't the only ones losing their homes. Some shelters are reporting increased relinquishments of dogs and cats. The reason: moving or can't afford," said Peterson in an interview with washingtonpost.com. "The animals that are brought to shelters are the fortunate ones in that they will be cared for and hopefully adopted into new homes. There are also reports of pets abandoned to fend for themselves on the streets or in an empty home. This is cruel and most likely illegal."

A transcript follows.

Peterson is also manager of the Feral Cat Program at HSUS and a registered veterinary technician and award-winning writer. She works on issues such as pet restrictions in rental housing, allergies to pets, and behavior programs for pets in animal shelters.


Nancy Peterson: Hello everyone,

I'm glad to join you today to talk about how the economic downturn is affecting pets in some parts of the country and how giving up their beloved pet can be avoided.

I look forward to your questions.



Martinsburg, W.Va.: There is a wonderful person on Craig's List for Martinsburg, W.Va., who is offering to give you food for your dog if you are unemployed --- no strings, just a good person trying to help those first forgotten in hard times -- the family pets.

Nancy Peterson: It's terrific that he is offering free food. Other options for help include food banks maintained by your local Red Cross or animal shelter. I know it can be difficult to admit you're having financial problems, but I'd also suggest asking friends and family to donate a small amount to help you out. You might also check with pet supply stores and see if they have any damaged bags of food they would provide to you at a steep discount. Remember when switching foods to do so gradually over a period of several days so as not to cause GI upsets.


Phoenix, Ariz.: We are a network of animal rescue groups and noticed the increased number of pets left tied in yards or worse, indoors, at abandoned homes. Media was notified. Nothing. Lenders, mortgage brokers, builders and realtors all profited two years ago. Where are they now? All over the country, stories like yours are finally appearing. Why has it taken six months to acknowledge, and why did no one see the likely consequence? There is always a human side to a financial problem.

Nancy Peterson: I don't know why it has taken so long for the problem to be acknowledged, but I hope that now that it is, solutions will be offered. For example, the Washington Post article described the "Safe Harbor" project of the Montgomery County Humane Society. Other shelters are recruiting more foster families to help temporarily care for pets until folks can get settled. And The HSUS has launched its Foreclosure Fund to help shelters implement similar programs to keep people and their pets together. Check out our web site at animalsheltering.org/foreclosurepets if you are a shelter or rescue group to apply for a grant. If you're an individual, you can donate to this fund and find other tips to help yourself or others facing economic difficulties at www.humanesociety.org/foreclosure pets.


Washington, D.C.: The Post's piece on people in foreclosure situations giving up their beloved pets in Montgomery County made me terribly sad. I adopted my best friend from the Montgomery Co. Humane Society two years ago. I was told that her family gave her up when they moved away -- maybe the situation was similar?

I'd like to know what we can do beyond (though not instead of) fostering and giving money to our local humane societies. Is there any way to lobby landlords or the governmnet to allow pets in formerly animal-free rentals so families are not separated? Is there something else concerned people can do to be of help to these animals and their families?

Thanks for all you do.

Nancy Peterson:"Moving" and "landlord won't allow" have always been among the top reasons given by people who surrender their dogs and cats to animal shelters. Fifty percent of renters have pets so it makes good business sense for housing professionals to allow pets. However, housing professionals have legitimate concern about the damage that pets can cause.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has "lobbied" housing professionals for many years by attending apartment association conferences and distributing our materials and speaking with landlords. Please check out our information, whether you're a pet owner or a housing professional, at www.rentwithpets.org.

Supporting your local animal shelter in terms of donations of money and needed supplies is a way to help the less fortunate. Volunteering is important also. You may find your local shelter by looking in the Yellow Pages under "humane society," "animal shelter," or "animal care and control."


Richmond, Va.: Do you know if veterinarians are seeing more people just having their animals put down rather than go through expensive heroic treatments that they may have considered in the better times? Are people not going to go to the vets as much, maybe foregoing shots they they would have gotten for their pets, just to save money, and could that be a long term health problem? or am I just blowing it way out of proportion?

Thanks for taking my question.

Nancy Peterson: It's possible that people are having to make the very difficult decision to put down a pet if his suffering can't be controlled or his prognosis isn't good. However, I don't have any exact figures.


Germantown, Md.: I've now seen stories in USA Today, the Washington Post and on ABC World News about this problem of people giving up pets due to the housing crisis -- is the attention helping at all to involve those who can lend a hand,and is there any kind of system in place that can help, whether a temporary holding situation for affected pets, or small amounts of money for petfood/vetcare? it is heartbreaking that animals, who love unconditionally, are seen as disposable possessions by the people who brought them into their families.

Nancy Peterson: Sometimes people adopt pets without realizing the cost, effort and money involved in caring for them. We encourage people to do their homework before bring a pet into their family and that is why animal shelters and rescue groups ask so many questions. They want to be sure they are making a good match between a family and a pet so that the pet has a forever home.


washingtonpost.com: Renting With Pets: The Online Resource for Rental Managers and Pet Owners ( Humane Society of The United States)


Washington, D.C.: I know shelters often arrange foster homes for animals who need more socialization before they are ready for adoption. Is this another solution for the homeless family pet problem, i.e., fostering a family's pets until the family can take them back? I realize that foster homes can be in short supply. And that not every family will be able to reclaim a pet. Thanks.

Nancy Peterson: Yes, many shelters try to resolve behavior problems while animals are awaiting new homes. And people may tell the shelter "moving" - which may be the case - but there's also a behavior problem. Imagine if your dog barks a lot and you have to move from a house to an apartment where you share walls with other residents. That could be a problem. To solve pet behavior problems, see our free tip sheets at www.petsforlife.org.


Franconia, Va.: Where economic tragedy strikes, it seems a million times better for the pet to be turned over to a good-quality animal shelter, even at risk of humane death, rather than abandoned in the wild, or worst of all, trapped in the former house.

But someone who is in this situation may not be thinking straight and may think abandoning them outdoors is safer. Do you know if the ASPCA, Humane Society or other groups have considered outreach to homeowners who are likely to be facing foreclosure? I'm thinking of an insert to mailings from mortgage companies or government offices handling late tax payments, etc. It seems like a smart place for a public education campaign -- if it wouldn't overload the shelters.

Nancy Peterson: Yes, people may not be thinking right, but abandonment is cruel and likely illegal. The HSUS has many tips for people facing hard times at www.humanesociety.org/foreclosurepets. Your suggestion about inserting tips in foreclosure notices is a good one and we're discussing this now with a major bank.


washingtonpost.com: Pets for Life: Helping People and Their Pets ( Humane Society of The United States)


Rescue volunteer, D.C.: Thank you so much for bringing this to light! As a rescue volunteer, I see way too many pets given up for every possible reason, from silly to serious. My question is: Your intro mentions working on rental restrictions. How is that going? Is there anything we (as voters) can do to encourage lawmakers?

Nancy Peterson: This is a tough one. Americans value private property and it's unlikely that laws could be passed that mandated that pets be allowed in rental property. Fortunately, pets are now allowed in Section 8 public housing. The best thing renters with pets can do is be tip-top residents. One bad apple can cause a landlord to stop allowing pets.


Washington: I live in an apartment where keeping a pet of my own is (sadly) not an option. But I want to do more than donate money to help homeless animals. Seeing as I'm not trained as a vet or animal technician, what are other ways I can help?

Nancy Peterson: You can volunteer with your local shelter or rescue group, call them and ask them what things they need, for example, towels, dog walkers and cat socializers. Also, always recommend that people adopt their pets rather than purchase them in a pet store or over the Internet.


Washington, D.C.: Do you find that some of the local rescue operations are a little overzealous in their criteria for people who would like to adopt pets? I have looked into adopting an animal from a couple different local rescues but frankly I find their applications to be a little biased. Some have what seem like trick questions from what causes heartworms to how long will the pet be at home during the day. I know some items are important to determine if the animal will have a good home and not end up abandoned again, but I don't want to defend the fact that I have a full-time job in order to adopt an animal that needs a home. Do the rescues really want to adopt the animals out or are they just waiting for some retiree with a part-time job to take them all in?

Nancy Peterson: It's critical that shelters make a good match between a person or family and a pet to help ensure a lifetime home. Many shelters are getting away from the interrogation-type interview and using a more adopter-friendly technique.


Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for doing this chat and for all the HSUS's work on so many issues. This is an important issue, and I'm confused as to why people who simply abandon dependent animals aren't simply prosecuted for cruelty. Can you advise what some of the local jurisdictions' policies are? Would having more viable, officially-supported feral Trap-Neuter-Release programs ultimately reduce some of the risks which "released" abandoned animals face outdoors?

Nancy Peterson: In most jurisdictions, there are ordinances that define abandonment as cruelty. Ordinances vary from municipality to municipality. In order to find out what your ordinance says, you can call your local animal care and control agency. Some people are being prosecuted, but as you can imagine, it can be difficult to find them once they've moved on.

Trap-Neuter-Return with on-going management is supported by The HSUS. Find more information at www.humanesociety.org/feralcats.


Montgomery County, Md.: Re. the "Safe Harbor" program -- what's the best way to support it? Can we foster animals staying for a time at the shelter til families get on their feet? Can we pay for their food or vet visits?

Nancy Peterson: Please understand that The HSUS is not a parent organization to local shelters. There is no such organization. That being said, we have many ways to help them. I would suggest that you call the shelter directly to find out how to best support its "Safe Harbor" program.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for such a moving article. What can animal lovers like myself do to help or volunteer in these situations? I already have a house full of animals, so I can't take any more in, so what are shelters looking for by means of volunteer services?

Nancy Peterson: If you know of someone who cannot afford food for their pet, you could help to pay for food. That is usually the biggest on-going expense they have. Shelters need volunteers to do many, many things and what your particular shelter needs may be different from another shelter. It's best to contact your shelter and see what they can offer. Many post this information on their web sites.


Just so no one misunderstands: You sorta mixed up two terms. Section 8 housing is generally rent vouchers given from the goverment to private apartment owners, who are still free to allow or not allow pets as they see fit.

Public housing is owned by a municipal government or some regional government authority. Each city, county, regional authority has their own pet policy.

HUD generally offers financing to private developers to build affordable housing. Again, apartments are primarily privately owned.

Nancy Peterson: In 1998, Congress passed the Public Housing Reform Act, which requires public housing authories to allow all resident to have one or more "common household pets." This right to have a pet is subject to conditions set by the public housing agency or management. Some managers have stated that cats need to be declawed according to HUD rules. This is definitely not the case.


Nancy Peterson: Since there's a little lull in the questions, let me add some important tips if that can reduce the cost of pet care:

1) Don't buy expensive toys and accessories for your pet. He needs your attention and love ore than pricey products. You can make inexpensive toys for dogs and cats. Check out our web site.

2) Keep your pets safe inside or on a leash while outside. Animals allowed to roam freely are more prone to accidents and resulting veterinary bills.

3) Let your veterinarina know that finances are tight and ask the she prescribe only the most vial vaccinations to keep your pet health.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Nancy,

Do you distrust vets who perform the declaw surgery in cats?

Nancy Peterson: The HSUS is opposed to declawing that is done for the convenience of a pet owner/landlord and does not benefit the cat. Although techniques and pain medications have improved, declawing is still an unnecessary procedure in the vast majority of cases. Please read my chapter on declawing at www.hsus.org (search "State of the Animals 2005" and then download chapter 3.


Washington, D.C.: How shelters are handling more unusual pets, such as iguanas, sugerbabies, hedgehogs, etc?

Nancy Peterson: Unfortunately, shelters have to care for these pets when the people who purchased them no longer want them or can't keep them for some reason. We oppose having exotic animals as pets. People often don't understand how to care for them properly and they suffer. If your local pet store sells these types of animals, let the manager know that you are opposed to that.


Stray Cat: Thank you for all of the work you do! My question related to the animals that will become strays because their owners have decided to let them fend for themselves. What is the best thing to do if you see a stray animal? And how do you know an animal is a stray? We have been seeing a cat around our neighborhood but I can't get close enough to see if he/she has a collar. How can I tell if he/she needs help? I know I can't tie this specific cat back to a foreclosure but want to make sure to help this cat out if he/she needs help!

Nancy Peterson: If you can't get close to the cat after several days, it's likely the cat is a domestic cat that has adopted a feral lifestyle. Feral cats are afraid of people. We have lots of great info at www.humanesociety.org/feralcats. Our new brochure, "Helping Homeless Cats," will answer your questions. Contact me and I'll be happy to send you one.


In 1998, Congress passed the Public Housing Reform Act, which requires public housing authories to allow all resident to have one or more "common household pets." : Right, that is for publically owned housing, and NOT privately owned Section 8 voucher housing.

Nancy Peterson: Right!


Gaithersburg, Md.: There is such a shortage of foster families. I would encourage anyone who has considered fostering to at least try it. We have been a fostering family for three years and have found it very rewarding. I have had many people tell me they couldn't do it because they couldn't let the animals go. It is hard to part with them but it is harder to think if we wouldn't have taken them they would have been lost forever. I think back on our fosters and their new families and how they have enriched each others lives, there is no doubt that we will continue to foster.

Nancy Peterson: There is a shortage of foster families. Those who foster are a special breed. Try it and see if it's for you!


Ferret lover, Va.: A reminder to all those who think they may need to give up their pets in the future: If you adopted from a private rescue, that animal needs to be returned to the rescue it came from, not the county shelter. Most rescues put a clause in the adoption contract stating that the animal must be returned to them in the event that the family cannot keep their pet. Generally, the animal will be taken back by the rescue group with little wait (at least this is the case for the rescue I volunteer with, we try to keep at least one space open for emergencies at all times) For some reason, whether it be shame or a desire to get some of the adoption fee back, the small rescue I volunteer with routinely finds animals adopted out from our facility on craigslist, freecycle or in county shelters.

Please read over any adoption information received when you adopted your pet before turning to the internet, friends or county facilities to find them a new home.

Nancy Peterson: You are most correct.


Mom of Three Shelter Cats: I am outraged that people would choose to abandon their pets in hard times. What's next? Kicking the teenage son out because he's growing and eating too much? Thank you for all you do. Unfortunately many animals really are better off dead than being mistreated.

Nancy Peterson: Abandoned animals offer suffer a cruel fate: hit by a car, poisoned, injured by another animal. It is our hope that there will come a day when euthanasia of healthy, adoptable pets will be a thing of the past.


NoVa: Hi Ms. Peterson,

I agree wholeheartedly about not keeping exotics as pets! Vets often have only a rudimentary knowledge of their nutritional needs and care, so the average owner is even less likely (yes, I am in the field).

Thanks for the chat!

Nancy Peterson: My pleasure. Our web site has more information about exotics and why we don't recommend keeping them as pets.


Nancy Peterson: So long, everyone. Thanks for your questions and for your concern for animals.

Nancy Peterson

The Humane Society of the United States


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

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