Many pets are given away amid economic downturn

Juliet and Cristi Bennett
Juliet gives a kiss to Cristi Bennett. The pit bull, like so many pets in the current economy, lost her home when her owner could no longer afford to keep her.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

The story of this Juliet, an American pit bull terrier, has its share of tragedy. She was kenneled with an Orange County veterinarian because her owner was hit by catastrophic illness. When poor health and medical bills took their toll, the owner sadly released the dog for adoption. Then Juliet, saddled with the stigma that comes with pit bulls, sat in the kennel for three months, then four months, then five.

Juliet’s owner faced the difficult and increasingly common dilemma: Even when you’ve hit a financial wall and know you no longer can afford to keep a pet, the desire to find a better home for it often comes with no guarantees. As lost jobs and home foreclosures force more Southern Californians to give up their animals, counseling experts say there are ways to make the process less painful, particularly when children are involved.

The first piece of advice: Think long term. Families who must part with a beloved pet -- whether because of finances, allergies, illness or other household upheaval -- are best off if they can scout a new home for the animal rather than relinquish it to a shelter, experts say.

Find a family member, friend or neighbor who can keep the animal for a few months while you resettle, advises the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which estimates that 1 million cats and dogs are in danger of becoming homeless because of the economic crisis.

The grief and tears will still come, but children will be spared the unsettled feeling of not knowing who’s caring for the pet, says Thomas W. Roberts, a child and family development professor at San Diego State who has written about animal-human interaction in families.

“Finding the right home, being able to say goodbye, maybe have some visits,” Roberts says. “I think that would be ideal.”

In a region walloped by foreclosures, officials from Riverside County Department of Animal Services are begging displaced homeowners to keep their pets or find a friend who can house them temporarily. Cats often move with families, so dog owners are more likely to need help. The shelter has compiled a list of apartment buildings that welcome dogs, department spokesman John Welsh says. The lack of a yard is not a problem as long as the dog is walked, he says. Plus downsizing from a house or condo to an apartment, with dog in tow, could help the owners too.

“Giving up a pet may be the worst thing,” says Alan Entin, past president of the American Psychological Assn.'s family psychology division and a researcher in human-pet relationships. “They really help reduce stress,” he says. Losing a pet when life is already stressful may just make things worse.

There are times, however, when a new home is the only answer, Roberts says. He and his wife were forced to part with an adored dog -- adopted as a puppy in Roberts’ bachelor days -- that became rough and snappish when their baby son grew into a mobile toddler. The couple worked through their veterinarian to find a new home for it. The loss broke their hearts but also sparked Roberts’ interest in researching the link between humans and animal companions.

“We stayed in contact for a while, and that was very helpful to us,” he says. “The dog just did great.”

Blythe Wheaton, co-founder of the nonprofit Pet Rescue Center in Mission Viejo, says early action is also crucial, especially when many pet organizations run on part-time volunteers. “They just need to give themselves some time,” she says of desperate owners, who often wait until a few days before they’re forced out of a home before they seek help for the pet.

When the time does come to part with the animal, Entin urges parents to explain the situation to children as simply as possible and without anger. Don’t spirit the dog away while the kids are at school. Acknowledge their sadness. Talk about the situation. And if the kids are 5 or older, be ready for questions and real grief.

“Tell them you have some tough choices, and you don’t like the choices, but sometimes you’ve got to do it,” Entin says. Be frank, perhaps even sketching out the basics of the family budget with pencil and paper.

“Let them know that you’re going to get through it all together,” Entin says. “Let them know this is happening all over, but that we’re going to get through it together as a family.”

As absurd as it sounds, some kids may think they’re the next to go. They may worry, “What if I eat too much, grow too fast, need more clothes and have more demands?” he says. Parents should allay those fears, even if it feels silly to have that conversation.

Children may grieve, throw tantrums, act out and lose sleep. The best course of action is to stick it out, Entin says, and assure them that what they’re feeling is natural. Parents can express emotion and admit grief too, but they should avoid extreme displays of frustration and anger that might further frighten the child.

Eventually everyone may take some comfort knowing a pet found a good new home, and the case of Juliet the pit bull is proof. Cristi Bennett, a computer software trainer from Rancho Santa Margarita, had recently lost her pit bull to bone cancer. She didn’t think she was ready for another dog, but when she heard about Juliet, her heart melted.

“She’s the highlight of our life. She’s very funny and entertaining and playful,” says Bennett, who now cares for the dog with fiancé Steve DeTata. “Most of the day she likes to sleep right by my desk. . . . She’s got it good.”