More people than ever are turning to Feeding Windsor-Essex’s pet food bank as inflation hits grocery bills hard for humans and pet food. And local organizations say the number of people who’ve had to surrender their pets because of rising costs has more than doubled in the last three years.

“Some people come here, [they say] ‘We haven’t got enough money to live on,” said Darlene Druer, a volunteer at the local pet food bank. “‘But our animals have to have food.”

“They don’t care about themselves, they care about the animals.”

The pet food bank first started about five years ago at 999 Drouillard Rd., and has since expanded to two other locations.

Executive director Rodger Fordham said they feed about 600 animals a month, up about 30 per cent this year with high inflation and the possibility of a recession.

“When you’re in a low income, your chance to absorb things is a lot different,” Fordham said, noting that for low income households, there are fewer places to trim spending. “Inflation like this and maybe even a recession obviously doesn’t affect everyone equally.”

Druer estimates about 90 per cent of people who come to the pet food bank also use other Feeding Windsor-Essex food services.

Surrenders not on the rise, but money a bigger factor: Humane society

Facing financial hardships, some make the choice difficult to surrender their animals. Last week the Toronto Humane Society mounted a search for the owner of a dog left in a city park, with a note saying the owner had lost their job and home.

The last line of the note attached to Max said simply, “He’s a good boy.”

Although the Toronto shelter ultimately managed to find Max’s owner, the family is still unable to care for him and Max will soon find a new home.

Locally, there aren’t more animals being surrendered to the Windsor/Essex Humane Society, said executive director Melanie Coulter — the number fluctuates for a variety of reasons, and depending on species.

But that isn’t the whole story.

“We’re finding more and more the reason for surrender is financial,” Coulter said. “We were already seeing this trend last year. It’s something we’ve been anticipating (and) we’ve been trying to address it in a variety of ways for many years now.”

In 2019, 51 pets were surrendered for one of three financial reasons tracked by the humane society: A pet is imminently sick and owners can’t afford their care; owners can’t afford a pet’s general medical care; and affordability at large.

Just 100 days into 2023, 94 pets have already surrendered to the humane society for the same three reasons.

Figuring out the root cause of the spike in financial surrenders is tough, Coulter said. But there might also be secondary financial reasons that don’t seem obvious on the surface.

“We heard some people say that they were moving and that was the reason their pet was coming in, but it turned out they were moving in with a family member because they were getting evicted,” Coulter said.

There are resources available to help, Coulter said. In recent years the humane society started a low-cost medical program for pyometra, a potentially life-threatening condition that can require an emergency surgery running thousands of dollars.

Coulter said even if you aren’t at the point of needing to access a pet food bank or surrendering your pet, there are a few things you can do to save. Comparison shopping, especially among different animal care providers, asking for a generic alternative and buying in bulk can all help.

“We don’t want people to have to surrender [their pets] when we can help them stay in a home where we know they’re loved.”

‘Life is different every day:’ Pet food bank usage rises

Druer, the volunteer at the pet food bank, spends Wednesday afternoons scooping kibble, packaging up treats and chatting with pet owners.

While patrons sign in to access the pet food bank, Druer asks a few basic questions: what kind of animals they have, how big they are, whether they need anything extra, like puppy pads. Pets are, of course, welcome to roam around. She hoists eight kilogram bags of dry food, dumping them into Rubbermaid bins for easier scooping. Sometimes her granddaughter comes along to help because the heavy lifting is hard.

Depending on donations, the pet food bank carries almost everything you could need: food, including different varieties catering to medical needs such as weight management or urinary tract care, as well as treats, beds and even clothing to keep pets warm during the winter. Right now donations are a little scarce.

Druer said the clients she sees always make their pets a priority. Making sure the animals get fed is why she likes the work, and it’s obvious she’s an animal lover herself.

“There’s one person that comes in here … She’d rather feed her animals than feed herself,” Druer said. “She wanted wet cat food. I said, ‘Your cat only needs dry food,’ because I’ve known this lady for quite a while.

“She says, ‘Well, if I don’t take it home, then I don’t eat.’ I guess she eats cat food too once in a while until her check comes in once a month.”

In that case, Druer said she made sure the woman had some food to eat and knew about Feeding Windsor-Essex’s other programs.

A sign on the corner of a building advertises a pet food bank.
Feeding Windsor-Essex ruins a pet food bank at 999 Drouillard Road. (Mike Evans/CBC) (Mike Evans/CBC)

Samara Sterling said she was using the pet food bank to care for four stray cats living in an alley near her home, having learned about the program from a sign on the side of the building.

“Cat food over just for a small bag is over $5,” Sterling said. “Between four cats it doesn’t really go far. It’s been kind of crazy.”

Fordham said many people might level a common criticism: Don’t have a pet if you can’t afford to care for it. But it’s just not that simple.

“There’s more tears shed in our pet food bank than anything else we do,” he said. “This year we’ll feed [people] 250,000 meals in this county… But people really take it personal when they have to come to you and say ‘I’ve been laid off and I can’t feed my dog.’

“You get an animal expecting it to be in your life for 10 or 12 or 15 years. And the reality of life is every day is different.”

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