For many of us, having a pet keeps us sane in stressful times, is an integral part of family life, and provides comfort and company when we need it most. Imagine having to give that pet up for adoption because you can no longer afford to keep it.
That was the dilemma faced by Tina, a single parent in south London. In August, she made the painful decision to rehome Max, her 12-year-old rescue jack russell, after he developed a serious skin condition. Tina took Max to a shelter, which said it would look after him until he was matched with a new owner – “something they could not promise me would necessarily happen,” she says.
“I struggled to pay the vet bills,” says Tina. “The one I go to isn’t expensive compared to a lot of them, but a consultation alone is over £30, which is all I have for food each week. My dad helped me out a bit, but now my dog needs treatment that I just can’t afford.”
Aside from dealing with her distraught four-year-old child, who can’t understand why Max is no longer there, Tina herself is heartbroken and goes to bed crying most nights. “I feel like I am a terrible person,” she says. “How could I give up this beautiful creature that had been loyal to me all of these years? It feels like a knife through my chest when I think about never seeing her again.”
Research carried out in 2021 by the Blue Cross and academics at Edinburgh University found that 68% of respondents were concerned about the impact of the rising cost of living on their ability to care for their pets, with the biggest source of worry being able to afford vet care. Between March 2020 and March 2021, the UK’s pet population increased by 3.2m. Now rises in pet behavioural issues and the escalating cost of living are making it impossible for many to take care of ill or ageing animals.
Frank, who is in his 40s, worked as a computer programmer until he was made redundant in 2020. He is single, lives on benefits and struggles to make ends meet. He describes the loneliness he has experienced since giving his cat to a neighbour last year. “I never thought in a million years I would let my cat live with anyone else, but I had to put him first,” he says.
“It wasn’t so much the food, more the vet bills. He has a kidney complaint and there is no [vet charity] PDSA near me. It’s not fair on him, though it tore me apart to have to rehome him. I used to see him in the window of his new home, but it upset me so I have changed the route I walk.”
Pet insurance is prohibitively expensive: according to the Association of British Insurers, the average pet insurance premium is £271 a year, with the average payout £822. And without insurance, vet costs are excruciatingly high. The Animal Trust, which is not-for-profit, charges between £929 and £1,849 to treat a fracture.
As I write, my dog Maisie is nudging me with her nose, asking for a walk. Maisie came to live with us, rescued from an abusive situation, when she was about eight months old. She had a problem with her leg, which luckily was diagnosed shortly after we had taken out pet insurance. That one relatively minor operation, 14 years ago, cost £4,000.
Maisie is now an old girl with extensive arthritis, so our monthly vet bills are not inconsiderable: regular injections of an anti-inflammatory treatment; weekly hydrotherapy to keep her limbs supple; and all kinds of pills and potions such as fish oil and special food to keep her pain-free. Needless to say she is insured.
But what of those who are not lucky enough to have the means, not only to keep their pets pain-free, but to keep them at all?
In 2020, the Blue Cross opened its first pet food bank in Grimsby, followed by branches in Sheffield, Exeter and Manchester. Sarah Eden runs the Exeter branch, which distributes approximately 150kg of pet food a month. She also gives advice to those considering relinquishing pets.
“We are starting to see a real increase in people requesting help,” says Eden. “For us, it’s much better if people can keep their pets rather than rehoming them.”
Eden explains how the food bank came about: “There was one particular case that gave the Blue Cross the final kick to get the food bank going. An older woman contacted us. Her husband had died and her two yorkshire terriers were her life. But she simply couldn’t afford to feed them. She was crying down the phone to us. She was slightly too far away for us to drop food off, so we bought £120 worth of food to last a few months and got it delivered to her.
“Quite often, we’ll get requests to take pets via the hospital because they can’t afford ongoing medical care. It’s not like expensive limb repair or anything like that, but quite basic treatment which people would previously have been able to afford.”
Ruth Jones is the Labour MP for Newport West, and her shadow ministerial brief includes animal welfare. “The stories that people who are relinquishing their pet tell you are heart-rending,” she says. “Some even pretend that their dog is a stray because of the stigma. They say: ‘Oh, I just found this dog wandering outside my front door. And his favourite toy is this. And his name is this. And he likes to do this.’ So awful. And of course, it’s not just dogs and cats – the number of rabbits that are being dumped has massively increased.
“We’re supposed to be a nation of animal lovers. The misery it causes families to have to lose their pet is awful.”
Jones fears things are only going to get worse in 2023, once the effect of the increase in costs is felt. “Obviously, I’m worried about things like rising mortgages, energy and things like that. People will be made homeless, and what do you do with the animal when that happens? That will become a massive problem next year.”
Landlords very often do not allow pets, and those moving to a form of temporary accommodation, such as a hostel, will inevitably be forced to give up any pets.
Rescue centres in the UK are already overflowing. Jones tells me that she visited one that had room for 30 dogs, but they told her that even if they had double the amount of space, they would still have to turn people away. In August the RSPCA reported a 24% increase in pets being abandoned, with shelters “drowning in animals”.
Louise lives in the south of England and in 2017 bought an english bulldog called Buddy from a breeder. “He was a very expensive dog,” she says, “but I thought it was safer to get a puppy so that we could socialise him from a young age.”
Quite soon, it was obvious that Buddy was an extremely dominant dog and he grew antagonistic towards Louise’s husband. “He would attack him, and it got so bad that we got in a dog behaviourist,” says Louise. “But she was really expensive, and nothing seemed to work, so we just couldn’t afford to keep that going.” Louise gave Buddy up last year, and says she misses him every day.
Seeking support from a dog behaviourist can cost up to £130 a session, and dogs with the type of issues Buddy has would need very regular attention. Louise could not commit to that additional expenditure.
“Now we are all heartbroken and Buddy is living in a rescue centre. It was so painful the day we had to let him go, I will never forget it.”
It is not just domestic pets that are at risk. Hannah Lain lives in Tufnell Park, north London, and is doing equine studies at Gloucester University. She is currently looking for a new permanent home for her horse, Cadet.
“I had wanted a horse since I was a kid but obviously in London it’s a very expensive thing to do,” says Lain. “I had three part-time jobs when I was at sixth form and saved up to get her. I took her to university with me, and she was supposed to be coming home this summer.
“I realised in February I could no longer afford to keep Cadet,” says Lain. “Eventually I had to accept that it wasn’t fair on either of us. It had always been my dream to have a horse. People who don’t know horses don’t understand, but I would rather spend time with her than with people.”
But rehoming Cadet is not going to be straightforward. “Cadet has been very difficult, because she’s been through some trauma through being mistreated in the past, and this makes her quite complicated to look after. But we got through it and she started to trust me. I’ve lost my best mate.”
As the cost of living crisis forces people to make impossible sacrifices, they will have no choice but to give up the thing that keeps them going. As Tina puts it: “Kids have to come before pets, and other vulnerable people such as the elderly and sick are going to suffer the most during this financial crisis. But we can’t ignore the distress that will be caused to so many who will lose their animals. It will make life so much harder than it already is.”
Some names have been changed