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A weeklong series of stories about how rising prices are impacting life in Bloomington-Normal. Airing July 25-29, 2022, on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

Food and care are more expensive, including for animals and the organizations that serve them

<em>Campylobacter</em> infections are common in dogs, cats and people.
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Nonprofit agencies that care for dogs and cats report rising costs due to inflation and other factors.

If you've got a cat or a dog at home, chances are you've heard them take one of those big, long, tired sighs — an exhale that suggests the release of heavy burden they're tired of carrying.

It's ironic because your dog or cat probably doesn't have too much to sigh about: They don't have a job and they don't have to pay bills, although these days, it might help if they did.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the cost of pet food has risen by almost 10% in the past year. The cost of pet services, including veterinary visits,is up by almost 8%.

Inflated costs are certainly an annoyance and extra burden to individual pet owners and families, but they're also a complication for smaller, not-for-profit organizations that rely on donations to help animals.

"It has caused us to ask for more assistance in dog food, cat food — we've always had that plea out there as an ongoing thing, but in situations like this, it's harder to provide with the funds that come in by adoption," said Michelle Masi, who founded a nonprofit animal rescue called My Loveable Angels in 2013. "It's been harder, but it definitely has not changed our focus."

Similarly, Lynne Rice of Sterile Feral, another nonprofit whose mission is aimed at neutering feral cats, has noticed it's been more expensive lately for her to assist cat owners in need of help with food.

"I purchased, just a few weeks ago ... a 20-pound bag (of food) and it was $21. A year ago, that same bag ... would have been about $16. Four or five dollars starts adding up because I'm not buying for just one person — I'm buying for multiple people," Rice said. "That four or five dollars starts to become $20. That's a whole bag of food that I could be buying for somebody."

Right now, Rice said she's helping about 10 people keep their cats fed. That might not seem like much, but it's a five-fold increase from two years ago, when it was just a couple of people.

"Again, 10 may not seem like a lot, but I can walk into the pet store, or Walmart or Sam's Club or wherever to buy the food and I'm spending $300," she said.

That $300 or so only reflects the need of the people that Rice is currently helping. She thinks that, given the inflated costs of everything at the moment, people are caught between a decision to put food on the table for themselves, their family or the pets — and the pets end up the loser in that scenario.

"I'm just seeing everywhere that every shelter is just full," Rice said. "Unfortunately, that's one of the reasons I think more and more cats are being thrown out: People think, 'Oh they can fend for themselves.' And it's just getting worse."

'We're all in the same place at once'

In January, the Humane Society of Central Illinois (HSCI), a no-kill animal shelter on Kays Drive in Normal, took in 15 dogs, 50 cats and two "small animals," said shelter manager Jane Kahman.

By June, the number of dogs had doubled to 30, and the shelter took in 67 more cats.

That's not all due to inflation: Kahman thinks some of the uptick is due to the COVID-era surge of pet adoptions and a dearth of veterinary appointments at the same time, resulting in a large number of unfixed pets. At HSCI, those services used to be offered to the public via regular clinics; a shortage of available veterinarians has curtailed that program for the time being.

"If you look at past numbers, when we had the availability to spay and neuter on a consistent, monthly basis, there weren't as many animals coming in," Kahman said. "We're seeing more and more kittens this year, and that's the spay and neuter (issue). Not being able to have access to the vet, I think, is kind of boosting the population a little bit."

Kahman also said people who adopted dogs when, say, they were working from home, are finding the adoption wasn't a long-term fit, prompting them to inquire about giving up the dog. That said, some of the relinquishment of dogs, according to HSCI outreach coordinator Jake Bradford, is inflation-related.

"I would say, probably, 90% of our calls for relinquishment are large-breed animals, just because they can't take care of them, whether it's time or money," Bradford said. "Large-breed dogs, obviously, take more to feed and take care of."

Added Kahman, "With the cost of dog food, specifically, it's jumped sky high. The cost has gone up and people have to make a choice: Food on the table for them or the animals?"

The ratio of intake-to-adoption also is skewed for HSCI at the moment, with the intake for dogs in particular outpacing the rate of adoption. Kahman said it's not only an issue for the Normal shelter, but across the sate.

"I have a lot of connections throughout the state and we're all in the same position at once," she said. "They're trying to get animals moved along, but each of the facilities that they try or have had good luck with placing before are full."

My Loveable Angel founder Masi said her organization is juggling a lot of pets, too. The nonprofit is a foster-based system, meaning there's not a shelter or a single location where pets are housed. Instead, Masi and volunteers foster animals in their homes until they're adopted.

Right now, the rescue is fostering about 25 dogs, including newborn puppies, and 15 cats.

"It is a lot, but I have found that when I put the plea out there for dire situations, we have people who rise up to the need and the challenge," Masi said. "We have found that when times are tough, true, giving people step up and though it's been harder for us, it has not deterred us one bit and it has not diminished our care or ability to provide."

Masi conceded it has been especially difficult for the all-volunteer rescue to make ends meet when it comes to veterinary costs, but credits "an awesome (one) who works with us" with not turning away animals in need.

Still, the bottom line for most, if not all animal-serving nonprofits right now is that, just like the social services that need extra help to assist people during this inflationary period, they also can use more help these days.

"Money is really, for the most part, the best way, because that way we can make sure that we're staying consistent with what we're providing people," said Rice, of Sterile Feral.

Masi said her organization often relies on the generosity of donors, or people who have adopted pets going to "Petco, PetSmart and (grabbing) an extra bag" of food that people can drop off at a bench at USA Ballet and Dance Company in Bloomington.

And for people who cannot personally adopt right now, HSCI's Bradford said there are other ways to help.

"We do take donations that are monetary or even supplies because, obviously, the more resources we have, the more we can help the animals," he said.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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