Acting on the Critical Link Between Pets, People, and Poverty

February 26, 2019

aspca volunteer handing a woman a bag at the food bank

By Matt Bershadker, ASPCA CEO

Whether you own a pet or not, everyone knows that the lives of pets and their owners are deeply linked. What happens to one—whether a happy or grave circumstance—significantly affects the other. 

This impact is magnified for the nearly 40 million Americans—roughly 12 percent of the country—living in poverty. That total is more than the number of people living in Canada. 

In addition, just under 12 million U.S. households—roughly 40 million individuals—reported being food insecure in 2017, meaning they were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all members due to a lack of resources. Families living near or below the poverty lines report substantially higher rates of food insecurity. Other poverty-related challenges to families include lack of access to quality medical care and safe shelter.

What Happens to Owners Happens to Pets

For families with pets, these food, shelter and medical challenges are transferred from owners to their animals, sometimes requiring painful decisions that put both the pets and family units in jeopardy. But while poverty may increase the risk of pet surrender, there is no data to support the notion that impoverished owners do not love their pets or are less committed to providing responsible care than owners who are financially secure. 

In a 2015 ASPCA study of pet owners who reported giving up a pet within the last five years, 40 percent of those with annual incomes below $50,000 indicated that free or low-cost vet care would have prevented them from relinquishing their pets, and 30 percent said free or low-cost pet food would have helped them the most. 

Because of the deep connection between pets and people, and the severe impacts of poverty on both, our efforts to help at-risk pets must go beyond traditional animal welfare partners and places. Here in New York City, our Community Engagement and Community Medicine programs already operate within underserved communities, and plans are in place to further serve local low-income residents with permanent ASPCA Community Veterinary Centers in the Bronx, upper Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Offering Food and Referrals

Another clear example of this work is our recent partnership with Food Bank For New York City, which represents what can happen when organizations with different missions and beneficiaries join forces to tackle shared challenges. 

Launched in early 2018, this partnership provides pet food to Food Bank clients who have pets, enabling them to feed themselves and their pets. It also facilitates vital referrals to critical ASPCA Community Engagement services and resources. What starts with a resource as basic as food evolves into a range of animal care including emergency veterinary services, spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinations and flea treatments, essential pet supplies and behavior support. With our help, Food Bank is now acquiring and distributing pet food throughout its network of 254 partner pantries. 

Antoinette’s Story

Last fall, during a trip to one of those partners, the Community Kitchen and Food Pantry of West Harlem, Antoinette Butler—who is a pet parent to a cat named Cujo—noticed pet food among the available groceries, as well as a sticker on the bag offering a free wellness check for pets. She called the number and, as a result, Cujo was vaccinated and received a clean bill of health.

Antoinette and Cujo and volunteers

Shortly after his initial checkup, Cujo suffered an aural hematoma, a painful ear condition resulting in blood vessel ruptures. With our help, Cujo was treated at an ASPCA partner clinic and later at the ASPCA Animal Hospital when his other ear ruptured in December.

 “A lot of us have animals but can’t always afford to take care of them. But we don’t want to get rid of them,” Antoinette told us. “Not only did the ASPCA save his life, but they’ve been there every step of the way. The ASPCA came to my rescue for Cujo.”

Since the partnership between Food Bank and the ASPCA started, 100,000 pounds of dog and cat food (400,000 meals) have been delivered to partner pantries in all five boroughs. By adding pet food and access to vital veterinary care to the resources they’re already offering, we’re assisting thousands more pet-owning families throughout the city.

Based on the success of this program, we’re planning to launch similar food-based partnerships in Los Angeles and Miami to complement our existing Community Engagement programs in those locations.

Focusing on Causes, Not Just Consequences

Whether we’re providing food, services or support, the objective is the same: find effective ways to curb the life-threatening effect of poverty on families with pets. In this way, we’re addressing the root causes of animal homelessness, not just the consequences.

I believe the future of animal welfare lies in safety net services like these—helping people hold on to and responsibly care for their animals. Anybody, regardless of income, should be able to enjoy and benefit from the love and companionship that comes from pets, and nowhere is a pet safer than in a loving home. Let’s do everything we can to not only put them there, but keep them there.