The down economy hasn’t just been tough on America’s workforce—it’s been rough on our furry friends, too. According to a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), total pet ownership dropped 2.4% from 2006 to 2011. During that time, cat ownership decreased 6.2% while dog ownership dropped 1.9%.
“The drop in pet ownership certainly appears related to the downturn in the economy,” says Michael San Filippo, spokesman for the AVMA.
“While we have heard about people abandoning animals because they couldn’t afford them any longer, it’s more likely the decline in ownership is due to people choosing not to bring new pets into their households after their old pets have passed away,” San Filippo says.
Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), says that the aging baby boomer population may be part of the reason why fewer pets are in homes.
“We do know the economy has played a role, but as baby boomers have aged, they’ve become non pet owners,” says Zawistowski . “Even though there are a lot of studies out there that show how good pets are for older people, we don’t see it happening. When the kids leave home, people tend not to have pets.”
He adds that foreclosures have also played a big role in the decrease in pet ownership. “When there are foreclosures and people move, sometimes the pets just can’t go with them. In many cases, people will be forced to downsize to an apartment, and they don’t always allow pets.”
In markets not plagued with foreclosures, the Humane Society reports no change in pet ownership, but areas hit hardest hit by the housing crisis had the highest amount of pets surrendered.
“In areas where people had less disposable income, it was often a choice between clothing and food and caring for their pets. In the depressed areas, it’s not uncommon to see people forced to surrender their pets because they can’t provide for them,” says Inga Fricke, director of sheltering and pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
Paying veterinary bills are a large part of the burden of owning a pet, and according to the AVMA study, the cost of vet care is on the rise. Vet care for dogs rose by 13.5% from 2001 to 2006, while vet care for cats was up 11.1% from 2006 to 2007. According to a survey by American Pet Products, the average cost of vet bills for dogs in 2011 was $248, while cats owners spent $219.
During the downturn, veterinary clinics across the country worked with cash-strapped owners to create payment systems to ensure proper care and prevent surrender. Duffy Jones, a veterinarian and owner of Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital in Atlanta, says that he came up with a specialized payment plan for his clients who fell on hard times.
“The way I saw it was, ‘We are all in this together,’” says Jones. “We didn’t want to take food off the table, but we did want to see pets getting the proper care. We broke things up, we spread out treatments, we offered long-term payment plans, and we made sure that we didn’t treat pets for unnecessary problems.”
While some of Jones’ “high-end” clients were not affected during the down economy, others in the middle to low-income range continue to struggle, he says.
“A lot of our clients can still afford everything they need to do,” says Jones. “But I think everyone is a little more cautious about taking on a dog or cat they can’t afford. Right now, people are saying, ‘This is not a good time for me to go out and get a new pet.’ It’s going to be a few years before we get back to where we were pre-recession.”