As head of PAWS Atlanta, Joe Labriola can get a good sense of the region’s economic well-being from the day-to-day activity of the city’s oldest no-kill animal shelter.
Through the course of the past year, it’s become increasingly clear to him that people in the area are struggling under the weight of inflation and economic uncertainty.
Practically the entirety of the daily call volume consists of requests to rehome pets. The shelter’s “surrender queue” is full, awaiting adoptions to free up space in the main shelter. And the shelves at PAWS Atlanta’s Pet Food Pantry quickly go bare.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking indicator is something this particular shelter never had to track before 2022. Last year, 166 pets were found abandoned at the shelter’s front gate.
“A number of animals are being abandoned that have serious medical issues,” Labriola told CNN. “The only thing we can guess is that people just can’t afford those expenses, and they’re hoping by dropping off [their pets] at our facility that we’re going to be able to pick up the slack. And we do as best we can, but it’s really putting a strain on our resources.”
Overall inflation remains high across the United States, but has slowly and methodically stepped down since setting a fresh 40-year record of 9.1% in June 2022, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. However, during the past eight months, inflation in pet-related products and services has only worsened, rising in some cases to record-setting levels.
In February, when annual CPI declined to 6%, the catch-all “pets, pet products and services” index rose to 10.9%, veterinary services jumped nearly 2 percentage points to 10.3% and pet food increased to 15.2%, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Those price increases are a double whammy for pet owners whose household finances have been weakened by persistently high inflation and for those who fear for rising instances of “economic euthanasia,” when animals are humanely put to death for financial reasons.
The recent pet-specific price spikes also are compounding pressures facing organizations tasked with providing a safety net for animals in need.
Nationwide, shelters are not seeing increases in pets being surrendered, said Kitty Block, chief executive officer and president of the Humane Society of the United States. However, when there are certain communities seeing spikes in abandoned or surrendered pets, that’s a sign of broader societal hardship, she said.
“When people are having to surrender their animals for economic reasons or because they’re in the middle of a horrible disaster or war zone area, that’s a people problem; this is not some issue that is not relevant to people,” Block said. “This is bigger than dogs or cats in shelters. It’s about the people who love them.”
Price hikes and cutting back
At the store level, many pet products saw double-digit average unit price increases during the past year, with several items — including pet food, non-clumping cat litter and bird grooming items — seeing year-over-year price hikes north of 20%, according to NielsenIQ data for the 52-week period ended January 28, 2023.
“Throughout 2022, price increases were pretty extensive — all the way up to 20% and almost 30% price hikes versus the year prior — across the pet department,” said Andrea Binder, vice president of North America Pet Retail at NielsenIQ. “In early 2023, we have started to see those start to taper off a little bit. Prices are still increasing but at a lower rate than they were in 2022.”
The price hikes have been attributed to rising input and ingredient costs, she added.
“The cost of chicken, the cost of beef, the cost of aluminum to make a wet cat food can … a lot of those commodity prices have been rising pretty dramatically throughout 2021 and 2022, which has caused manufacturers to increase their costs, and then therefore a lot of retailers follow suit,” she said.
Pet products, services and food have become “exponentially” more expensive, said Linda Harding, who lives in San Diego with two dogs. She said her pet food costs for Lola, her Australian Shepherd mix, and for Phoebe, her Golden Retriever, have doubled to $250 per month.
Harding has cut back on her own expenses. She hasn’t turned on the heat much all winter, she’s limited electricity use and she has stopped buying items like clothes and eggs.
“When you take on a pet, you take on a big responsibility,” she said. “It’s almost like when you buy a car, you’re going to have a lot of responsibility with that car. That car is going to break down, that car’s going to need repairs. It’s an investment.”
She added: “And they’re our furbabies. We love them to pieces. So it’s not really even a question. I need to find the money to keep them as healthy as possible so we can love them as long as possible.”
Mary Avila, a disabled veteran who lives on a fixed income, keeps things simple.
She doesn’t go clothes shopping anymore, she buys cheaper cuts of meat, and she does try to sock away money in case her pets need a small medical procedure.
“They always give,” said Avila, who lives in Bakersfield, California, with her cat, Jack, and two dogs, Domino and Squirt. “The cat doesn’t give as much, because cats. But the dogs, they always give, they’re always happy, they always want you around. They always are there for you.”
Patricia Kelvin of Poland, Ohio, said her Social Security benefits and pension can only go so far, so when the cost of utilities, food or trash collection go up, she has to cut back.
But not for her cat, Jesse.
“If he had some major medical concern, there are a lot of things I would give up so he would get care,” she said. “There’s just no question in my mind. If my diet was going to be more beans than something else, I wouldn’t hesitate. If I had to sell my sterling silver, which I’ve had for 60 years, that would go before my little ‘Whiskers’ would be deprived.”
The Animal Rescue League of Iowa is the largest nonprofit rescue organization in the Hawkeye State and adopted out 8,400 dogs, cats and small farm animals throughout last year.
As pet support services manager, Josh Fiala’s role at ARL is to help keep animals out of the shelter by offering programs — such as a pet food pantry, vaccine clinics, veterinary assistance and crisis care — to help keep pets with their people.
“We definitely, without question, have seen a dramatic increase in pretty much every one of those services,” he said, noting that the pet food pantry in particular has seen spikes in demand.
ARL gave out about 40,000 pounds of pet food in both 2020 and 2021. Last year, it distributed 146,000 pounds of food.
Waggle, a pet-dedicated crowdfunding platform for medical expenses and emergencies, has seen recent spikes in the volume of postings on its website — with some of the biggest increases coming from pet owners in rural communities and areas with high costs of living, said Steven Mornelli, chief executive officer and founder. Additionally, Waggle has also seen a 30% increase in posting for help with medical bills $250 and under, he told CNN.
“We have taken that as a correlation with the stresses of inflation,” he said.
In 2022, 4% more animals entered shelters than left, according to Shelter Animals Count, a national database of animal shelter statistics launched by some of the largest animal welfare organizations in the United States.
That’s the largest gap seen in the past four years and is the result of fewer pets leaving shelters, not increases in surrenders, said Christa Chadwick, vice president of shelter services at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Adoption levels have remained essentially flat, but there has been a large decline in animals being transferred to other shelters because of staffing and driver shortages, she added.
But she also highlighted the economic pressures affecting current and prospective pet owners.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that there are situations where pet owners are being put in a position where they are making a decision about their pet, whether it’s to surrender that pet to an animal shelter or they have to make a decision about euthanasia because they can’t afford care, she said.
“People tend to get angry at the pet owner when they [abandon or surrender their pet] but our experience has shown that when pet owners get to that point, it’s the only option they see available to them,” Chadwick. “And that’s real, and that’s hard for everybody involved, and that’s really hard for the animal who’s at the center of that.”
Chadwick sees a role for shelters and other organizations to provide a safe and welcoming place for owners who may feel like they have no other option.
Despite the broader economic challenges occurring within the US, PAWS Atlanta’s Labriola has had its share of feel-good success stories this year.
Donations have remained strong as has the volunteer program, he said. The low-cost public vaccination and spay and neuter clinics are sold out, indicating that people are taking advantage of inexpensive ways to care for their pets, he added.
And just recently, the shelter’s focus of working with dogs who have been there for more than a year, or “long-term guests,” is starting to pay off, he said.
“We’ve been able to place three long-termers into forever homes recently, freeing up space to rescue more homeless dogs,” he said.