In the face of tough economic times, some pet owners are shopping around for cheap veterinary care and others are deciding they can no longer afford even to feed their furry friends.
Local animal shelters have been overrun with relinquished pets this summer, often from owners who say they need to spend their money on human comforts.
Dan Butler, director of the Saratoga County Animal Shelter, said his office is seeing more sick animals than in the past.
“In the last month, we’ve had three animals that were very much in need of veterinary care who had been turned loose and were brought in to us,” Butler said. “One had tumors that were so bad our vet recommended we put him to sleep.”
He said two other dogs were extremely elderly and had apparently not been on the street too long before they were picked up by animal control officers.
“The older dogs get, the more medical problems that occur, and that can be expensive,” he said.
Older dogs are less likely to be adopted than young, healthy dogs.
Butler said the shelter will euthanize pets for a fee that is significantly less than veterinarians charge; eight to 15 animals are put to sleep at the shelter each month.
“That’s been pretty steady,” he said.
Saratoga County also sponsors free rabies vaccination clinics and Butler said attendance has skyrocketed this year, in part because people from outside the county are taking advantage of the free shots.
“We’re probably doing 200 pets a month and we don’t turn anyone away,” he said. “We do two [sessions] a month in July, August and September because we have so many people who want them.”
He said the state reimburses part of the cost of the vaccines.
Local vets say they’ve noticed pet owners are shopping around for free and reduced-cost services for their animals.
“A lot of people seem to be price shopping for spaying and neutering and vaccinations,” said Jennifer Steeves, a veterinarian with Banfield The Pet Hospital. “On the other end of the spectrum, we have people who seem to be foregoing their own financial security for their pets. They will do the best for their pets no matter what the cost.”
funding vet visits
Steeves said Banfield, which has offices in Clifton Park, Albany, Latham and Schenectady, has seen an increase in people signing up for monthly payments for regular visits.
“We have preventative care packages, which offer a cost savings on regular checkups, tests and dental work, allowing the patients to come in without paying the office visit fee,” she said. “That doesn’t cover if the pet becomes sick or has more severe medical conditions.”
She said the packages are not health insurance policies, but a way for owners to spread the cost of general care over a period of time rather than paying the full amount when they make a visit to the vet.
“We also have a small charitable trust that can offset some of the cost for patients in need, but that is a limited fund,” she said. Requests to tap the trust fund are up, she said.
Veterinarian Paul Hartman of Niskayuna’s Union Street Veterinary Hospital said his business has increased four-fold in the past year, in great part because he offers spaying and neutering at a reduced cost.
Hartman’s practice accepts certificates from Friends of Animals, a national non-profit organization that seeks doctors willing to operate at a lower-than-average price.
“We will do a spay or neuter for one-third to one-half the price that other large practices charge,” he said. “I’ve been in practice for over 30 years and I’ve seen the need for affordable spaying and neutering.”
He said the certificates for the reduced cost of spaying and neutering are used by people from all walks of life.
“We’ve had people come in driving Mercedes and Hummers and others pushing their pets in shopping carts,” he said.
Patricia Feral, the president of the New York chapter of Friends of Animals, said there has been a 20 percent jump in the number of people seeking a break on spaying and neutering this year nationally.
“Normally at this time of year we see a slowdown in the number of people asking for the certificates, but this year the numbers have increased each month,” Feral said.
Hartman said he believes part of his increase in business in recent months has been the price of gas.
“We’re centrally located and we’ve heard from some people that they are coming here rather than drive to the country doctors they normally use for their pets,” he said.
Saratoga Springs veterinarian Chris Brockett said most people appear to be trying to keep up with regular maintenance checkups for their pets, but if there are health problems that could call for more expensive procedures, humans are often opting not to go for them.
“If a veterinarian suggests an ultrasound for a better diagnosis, people are starting to say, ‘find a more conservative approach,’ ” said Brockett, who is also spokesman for the New York State Veterinarian Medical Society. “When the costs are up around $250 or $300, it seems people are less likely to approve.”
He said that leaves doctors to diagnose and prescribe care for the pet without all the information they might prefer.
“One thing we tend to see all the time, not just in tough economic times, is a family’s attachment to a pet grows over years,” he said. “A 10-year-old dog is a member of a family and we’re often directed to pull out all the stops to care for that pet. We’re less likely to hear that response for a puppy that’s maybe only been in the house for three or four months.”