‘It’s me or the dog’ puts shelters under stress

January’s financial pressures are nothing new but amid the cost-of-living crisis difficult decisions are being made in many homes across Northern Ireland.

Rescue organizations are reporting a soaring demand as struggling pet owners surrender their animals.

They say many owners are finding it hard to cover basic needs such as food and medication as costs rise.

At Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary in County Antrim, Carol Workman says they have been operating a “one in one out” system for the past year and are now experiencing huge demand after the Christmas period.

The sanctuary cares for a wide range of animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, goats and horses.

“This year it’s a double hit for most and for many people the only option they can think of is to give their pet to us,” she says.

A dog in a shelter kennel

Animal shelters are feeling the pressure as owners can no longer afford to keep their pets

That is problematic as Crosskennan often cannot help due to its own financial situation.

“We are facing all the same problems as ordinary pet owners but on a larger scale,” says Ms Workman.

“Feed costs have been on the rise steadily and simple things like cat litter have become a premium or impossible to get for us.

“The washing machine and dryer is constantly running and we’ve had to invest in electric radiators in some places as our boiler is broken and needs to be completely replaced but we don’t have the funds for that.”

Ms Workman says the sanctuary is regularly contacted by owners requesting they take in sick pets who need regular medication.

“A lot of people we have spoken to have been saying they need to give up their pet because they can’t afford it… so it’s a pre-emptive motion for many we’ve spoken to, to rehome before they potentially cost money .”

She describes the situation as “distressing for all involved” – the animals, their owners and the sanctuary – as the staff try to assist those in need but they have had to be strict on numbers.

“We’ve offered budgeting help and, where we can, help with food donations.

“The truth is many people believe that if they get rid of their pet that they will be OK financially and so they don’t want to accept anything other than us taking their animal in.”

Fiona McFarland, president of the British Veterinary Association’s Northern Ireland branch, says she is increasingly concerned by reports from vets who are seeing animal welfare being compromised as owners put off seeking medical care due to financial worries.

A cat being examined by a vet

Some animals are being abandoned on their own as owners struggle with medical expenses, says Danielle Magee

“Delaying treatment can lead to issues getting worse, more medical care and expense and potentially increased suffering for the animal, so we encourage owners to talk to themselves early if they have concerns,” she says.

“We would urge owners to speak to themselves if they are concerned about costs, as they do understand it is a difficult time and can discuss different options to help owners make the best decision, taking all circumstances into consideration and keeping the pet’s welfare as the priority.”

‘Drowning with the numbers’

Danielle Magee from Friends of Rescue, based in Londonderry, says her shelter is “definitely seeing an increase” in people giving up their pets due to the cost of caring for them.

“Those who are surrendered specifically because medical bills cannot be afforded are sadly sometimes left alone and just not picked up and rescues are left to pick up the pieces,” she says.

Friends of Rescue is entirely foster-based and says it is lucky to avoid traditional shelter overheads but it is still affected by high fuel costs as it transports animals across the country.

Ms Magee says the Dogs Trust’s decision to alter its subsidized neutering scheme for those on means-tested benefits has had a “huge impact” on rescue demands.

A dog in cone collar

Costs associated with neutering pets have led to an influx of litters, exacerbating the demand on shelters

Dogs Trust told BBC News NI that it made changes to the scheme in May 2022, allowing it “to direct help in a more focused way”, including to dogs in the rescue system, such as those within Northern Ireland’s council pounds.

“In doing so we are able to ensure that our funds are spent effectively and with maximum impact,” he said.

“We know the cost-of-living crisis is having an impact on dog owners.

“Last year Dogs Trust received over 50,000 inquiries from desperate dog owners asking us to take in their dog – the highest annual number of handover requests in our history,” it says.

Ms Magee says her shelter’s neutering costs have tripled, causing a “double whammy” of problems.

“That results in many people not being able to afford to neuter their dog and more accidental litters happening, with rescues again picking up the pieces when puppies cannot be sold and are surrendered,” she says.

“We are all drowning with the numbers of animals being surrendered to rescues and to pounds, with the majority of the public not knowing that dogs are literally euthanized if the pound is full, which is every single day.

“It’s honestly heart breaking, we feel like a broken record.”