The canine credit crunch starts to bite

As day-to-day upkeep, vets' bills and insurance costs rise, animal shelters report more owners giving up their pets. Brian Brady investigates
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The Independent Online

They are the forgotten victims of the credit crunch. As money becomes tight in millions of homes throughout the country, it is the four-legged members of the household that are most likely to feel the chill wind of recession.

Thousands of families are giving up their pets as they count the cost of their day-to-day upkeep, soaring insurance premiums and vets' bills. Animal shelters across Britain report a steep increase in pets being left with them over recent months, as well as a decline in the numbers of people willing to take on their abandoned dogs and cats.

"We have seen a big increase in the number of strays being brought to us," said a spokeswoman for Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in London. "We can't be certain that this is directly attributable to the credit crunch, but there is an assumption that this is the reason. There has also been a 20 per cent decrease in the number of people providing new homes for animals, compared with this time last year."

The Dogs Trust, the largest dog welfare charity in the UK, reported a dramatic impact "in terms of footfall and rehoming waiting lists" at most of its 17 centres. The trust's spokeswoman Caroline Hook said the charity's Harefield centre, in west London, had started to feel the pinch in the past month.

She added: "The Harefield waiting list for dogs to be rehomed is normally about three months. However, the centre is now having to tell people it will be between five and six months.

"Our London HQ has been inundated with calls from people wanting us to rehome their dog – one in five is now a rehoming request compared with just one in 10 a few months ago. The main reasons people are quoting is the credit crunch and that things are getting tight. It is a particular problem for people who have poorly dogs who require regular vet treatment and medicine."

The average vets' bill for a dog is estimated at more than £300 by Saga insurance, although the cost of treating more serious conditions runs into thousands of pounds. Sainsbury's Bank has found that 1.6 million dog and cat owners have had their pets put down over the past five years because they could not pay for expensive treatment. A further 2.6 million pet owners confessed to forgoing treatment recommended by their vets, because they believed the cost was too high.

However, millions of owners cannot even rely on insurance policies to cover the cost of expensive treatment. The pet insurance sector is the fastest-growing area of the market. The value of the sector climbed to £440m last year, fuelled by hikes in premiums which insurers in turn blamed on an increasing number of claims.

The Blue Cross animal welfare charity also reported a huge increase in the number of abandoned dogs taken in so far this year, with many of the owners citing economic problems, house moves and lost jobs.

Aldwyth Bates, a trustee of Powys Animal Welfare Trust, said: "There's no question the rise in the number of animals we are dealing with is down to the credit crunch. The situation is in crisis. Roughly speaking, we're taking in about three animals a day, and we now have 400 cats and 20 dogs."

In an attempt to convince owners that there is an alternative to dumping their pets, Battersea is preparing an owners' guide to looking after dogs cheaply. The Dogs Trust already has guidelines, including feeding animals dry food instead of tinned, buying in bulk and avoiding extravagant extras including sparkly collars.

"You may think your pooch looks pretty but if you're out to save money, a plain one will do the job," a spokeswoman said. "If you are thinking about getting a dog, a rescue centre such as Dogs Trust is a good place to start looking and is cheaper. You will know that your dog has had all its inoculations, and you get six weeks' free insurance and advice."

One of the family ‘It costs almost as much to insure my dog as my house’

David Ryan always knew that buying a Bernese mountain dog would cost him more in the long run, as the breed is prone to health problems. But he never expected the insurance premium for Jess to be close to the cost of insuring his house.

"We have to have her insured, mainly for the vets' bills," he said. "Last year when she was four, we got some very expensive insurance quotes, but we shopped around and got one for about £22 a month.

"But with a lot of insurance companies, six years of age is a cut-off point – either they don't take on new dogs or they impose big increases. The best I could get for Jess is £35, which is only £10 less than my home insurance. I can just about afford it, but I wonder what people with less money would do."