NEW YORK (Reuters) - Job losses and home foreclosures are forcing many American pet owners to make hard choices about their furry friends, and some are turning to animal shelters and charities to relieve them of the burden.
Margaret, a 58-year-old make-up artist who lost her job at a TV station in February and declined to use her last name because she does not want her landlord to know she is in financial difficulties, can no longer afford to buy food for her four large dogs and two cats, all rescued.
Sally, a three-legged 15-year-old mutt who has survived cancer, and Hershey, an elderly Dalmatian with urinary tract problems, both require expensive special food.
"I was finding I couldn't handle it all. It was costing me $350 to $400 a month just for their foods," Margaret said, sitting with a dog on her lap in the New York apartment where she grew up and where she nursed her mother for 10 years.
"I can't tell you how many people said 'You're being cruel to them, give them away.' But they're like family. I don't have family anymore, these guys are my family," she said.
Margaret turned to Safety Net, which provides foster care for pets and other help for pet owners who need some time to get back on their feet after losing a home or a job. Safety Net is now giving her pet food.
"We try to keep pets and people together," said Richard Gentles, spokesman for Animal Care and Control of New York City which runs Safety Net.
"In January of 2008 we had about 115 calls and then in September of 2008 we had over 200 calls. That's directly indicative of the hard times," he said, speaking over the constant barking of dogs at the city's Manhattan shelter.
About 71 million homes in the United States, more than 60 percent of households, have pets, and their owners spent an estimated $41 billion on their animals in 2007, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.
As Americans cut spending and companies lay off workers in the face of the biggest financial crisis in decades, the looming recession is having an impact on pet-owners, charities, animals and the businesses that cater to them.
Lee Ann Jaffee, who runs a rescue service for Italian greyhounds, is trying to find a home for three dogs whose owners are losing their Philadelphia home to foreclosure.
"Our breed can be very expensive," Jaffee said. "They're prone to broken legs, if they break a leg, for instance, it's like $3,000 to get it fixed."
Holly Derito, who runs New York's Waggy Tail Rescue, says she normally has around a dozen dogs in foster homes awaiting adoption at any one time. Now that is up to around 20.
"I've been doing Waggy Tail for 5-1/2 years and I've never seen this magnitude of dogs in shelter," Derito said. "A lot of times the dogs are getting sick and people will say they're strays. People are ashamed, so they'll say they're strays."
New York City has launched a campaign to end euthanasia in city shelters. In 2002, 30,699 animals were put down.
Animal Care and Control has an $8.5 million city contract to handle around 43,000 stray or abandoned animals a year.
Steve Gruber, director of communications for Mayor's Alliance for New York City's Animals which represents around 100 shelters and rescue groups, said the euthanasia rate had fallen from to 43 percent last year from 74 percent in 2002.
Gruber said the weak economy has both increased the number of pets being handed in for adoption, and made people think twice about taking on the financial responsibility of a pet.
"New York is attempting to become a no-kill city, not have to kill any animals. It's making it even more challenging," Gruber said.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals advises potential adopters that the costs in the first year of owning a pet can be from around $1,300 to $1,800 for a dog, depending on the size, and around $1,000 for a cat.
Wendy Diamond, editorial director of Animal Fair magazine, said the economic downturn forced her to cut ticket prices at a Halloween fundraiser for animal charities which raised just $25,000 this year compared to $50,000 last year.
She said small businesses catering to pet owners such as grooming salons and pet accessory stores would suffer too.
"Accessories are the first to go," Diamond said. "Unlike children and teens, dogs don't care about fashions and trends so they're fine with last year's leash or collar."
"Grooming salons will absolutely suffer," she said, adding that big retailers carry many more products than in the past for people to do their own pet-care. "You can groom your dog at home for $5, whereas at a salon in New York you pay $100."
Perhaps the only bright spot noted by several pet shelter workers was that more volunteers are coming in.
"One of my really great volunteers just got laid off so she's like 'What else am I going to do?'" said Derito.
Editing by Sandra Maler