BANGOR, Maine — During the hour-long evening meal in the soup kitchen at Manna Ministries Inc., Executive Director Bill Rae notices “doggy bags” being stuffed inside purses and pockets.
“Many of these people are eating some of their meal, but leaving a little extra and tucking it away,” Rae said last week. “It’s not for a snack for themselves later on. It’s for their dog or cat at home.”
As the current financial crisis deepens, so does the concern over how people are going to be able to care for family pets.
In recent months shelters have noted increases in animals being surrendered at the facilities as well as the number of animals found abandoned.
Area veterinarians also are aware of the difficult choices that families on tight budgets need to make when it comes to their pets’ well-being.
Those cute little vaccination reminder notes that show up each year in the mailbox are probably being set aside by some people for the time being, noted an Orrington veterinarian, Dr. Mark Hanks of Kindred Spirits Veterinary Clinic.
“From what I’m hearing, veterinarians are reporting about a 10 percent reduction in the number of those clients responding to the annual checkup reminders,” Hanks said.
Every day Rae watches as the working poor turn to him faced with the agonizing decision of what to do with their pets.
“They ask me if I know anyone who could give their cat or dog a good home because they simply can’t afford to properly take care of it. The biggest tragedy here is that these people are in such desperate need of the loving companionship the pets offer them. Sometimes it’s the only loving relationship they have in their lives,” said Rae.
Not long ago Dr. James Meiczinger, a veterinarian with Penobscot Veterinary Services in Bangor, had a woman cancel her own health insurance because “she couldn’t afford that and her pet, too.”
Kristina Clark is the receptionist at Manna and considers herself to be among the working poor. When her 4-month-old puppy developed a urinary tract problem, Clark found herself confronted with a $1,000 choice.
“Of course we had just fallen in love with her, and if we didn’t have the surgery, then the cost of the medicine needed to control her condition would add up quickly,” she said.
Clark found help in a low- to no-interest credit card called Care Credit that some area veterinarians use. If accepted, the company pays the vet the fee and the clients are allowed to repay the company monthly. If the debt is paid off in a certain number of months, there is no interest incurred, she said.
Broadway Veterinary Clinic in Bangor uses Care Credit and there is a link to it on the clinic’s Web site. Dr. Drew Benson said vets who offer the payment alternative pay a fee to use it, which is why the company can offer no-interest loans to some clients.
The key is to rigidly follow the company’s guidelines for payment, he said, in order to avoid steep penalties or interest rates.
The best thing pet owners can do is to be upfront and honest with their veterinarian, said Hanks.
“People have to be willing to have very frank conversations with their vets,” he said. “That is crucial. Many vaccinations, for example, are quite inexpensive. Those are not the things you want to avoid in most cases.”
But there are situations where some procedures may be eliminated, he said, such as feline leukemia shots for cats that never go outside and Lyme disease vaccines for small city dogs whose paws rarely leave a paved pathway.
“But if you have a puppy and you take that puppy to parks where it mingles with other puppies, then vaccines are not where you want to be cutting back,” he said.
Meiczinger said he expects things to get much worse over the winter.
“I think what you’ll see are people stringing things out,” he said. “They may put those vaccines or that checkup off 30 or 90 days. Sometimes that’s OK, but the best thing is to have very honest discussions with us so that we can give you the options and tell you what the real risks are or are not.”
Meanwhile, volunteers at Manna Ministries will continue to try to counsel those facing such grueling decisions and to hand out bags of pet food as they are donated.
“Just last night we had a man, a woman and a dog sleep in their truck in our parking lot,” Rae said last week. “The shelter was full, and we don’t have a shelter for women right now. But that was a family — mom, dad and the dog — and they’re trying their best to stick together.”
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY MICHAEL YORK
Veterinarian Mark Hanks holds a patient who is a recently acquired pet. Even simple evaluations such as checking heart rate and breathing, tooth condition and ears for mites can forewarn of more serious conditions.