The dog -- a 2-year-old female chow mix -- had been vomiting, and also had diarrhea and a high fever, for several days. Veterinarian Cathy Roncskevitz advised treatment that included blood work and X-rays, procedures that would generate a $450 bill. The pet's owners opted for a less expensive alternative, fluids and antibiotics, for about $100.

The nation's economy, hammered by foreclosures, job losses and a credit crunch, has its claws in another victim -- pet owners. The financial crisis finds pet owners, including those on Long Island, struggling to provide health care -- and, in many circumstances, food - for their animals, according to local veterinarians and pet-care workers.

Finances influence care The chow mix is a perfect example: Her owners' decision was financial, said Roncskevitz, of the Station Plaza Veterinary Group in Glen Head. "Since money was a concern, the clients chose the less-expensive outpatient treatment."

Many pet owners are taking a "bare-bones approach" to health care because of the economy, Roncskevitz and other Long Island vets said. "Where once they might have gone for the gold standard in pet care, now it's often a lot, lot less," she said.

The danger, said Roncskevitz, is that regular exams allow vets to check for warning signs of potentially bigger problems. "Animals not seen regularly are not getting the proper medication and treatment for disease prevention," she said.

Like Roncskevitz, many vets reported a mild drop in appointments -- less than 10 percent - but said more pet owners seem to be delaying treatment. Vets also have noticed increases in calls about how to treat sick pets at home.

"The situation is getting to be that people can't afford their pets," said Dr. David Hensen, who with his wife, Dr. Deirdre Hensen, both veterinarians, operates Paumaunok Veterinary Hospital in Patchogue. The owners "can't take care of their medical needs, and they can't feed them."

Food requests up At a full capacity of 400 cats and 35 dogs, Little Shelter Animal Rescue & Adoption Center in Huntington is one of the few facilities on Long Island that has a pet-food pantry, said Jodi Record, a center manager. Nearly 1,000 pounds of pet food is distributed monthly to about 100 needy pet owners.

"Pantry donations are down 50 percent," she said, "but food requests are up more than 20 percent."

In recent months, phone requests for food or medical help have doubled -- from 12 to 15 calls daily to 25 to 30 -- she said.

Pam Green, who for 24 years has been the executive director of the Kent Animal Shelter inCalverton, agreed that pet owners are feeling the pinch. "People don't have the money, so they can't feed their pets," she said.

High foreclosure rates also are pushing more people to give up their pets. Those losing homes often are moving into places where pets are not allowed, she noted. "Many have no choice," Green said. "It's sad."

Joanne Daley, supervisor for the Town of Islip animal center in Bay Shore, noticed more people turning in pets as early as last summer. "But the last six months or so, it has really picked up," she said, also noting the economy.

Shelters are full About 100 animals - full capacity - inhabit Kent Animal shelter, Green said, with the ratio of cats to dogs about 60-40. Most shelters, including those run by towns, are at capacity, experts said.

Patricia Cotten of Wyandanch plucked Chaos, a 5-year-old male pit bull, from a shelter in the city about four years ago. Before being adopted, Chaos had been used as a sparring partner in an illegal dogfighting ring. "But he's such a calm dog," Cotten said, "and so sweet, too."

Cotten feeds Chaos and her other pit bull, Apple, a 1-year-old female, with the help of a mobile pet food-distribution program called Training Wheels, a nonprofit associated with Animals for Adoption, based upstate in Ulster County. On Long Island, Training Wheels has just one operation, run by Linda Klampfl of Medford.

"I don't know what I'd do without the program," said Cotten, who has been getting food from Training Wheels since adopting Chaos. "I'm disabled, and without it, I could not give them the care they need."

Klampfl is one of about 30 volunteers of Almost Home, a Medford-based rescue and adoption nonprofit, who drive around the Wyandanch area, distributing 6,000 pounds of pet food monthly to about 110 needy households.

"The need for food is huge. Our demands are up, and donations are down," Klampfl said.

Donations used for health care also are down at the Kent shelter, where Green said many of her orphaned pets are treated at Rocky Shores Veterinary Hospital in Rocky Point. Rocky Shores' vets - the husband-wife team of Rob and Cindy Guasto - also have noticed more clients delaying visits or making decisions based on finance.

Rob Guasto said a few of his colleagues recently have told him about clients choosing to put their pets down rather than spend excessively on health care.

"Just a year or so ago, for an older pet with multiple symptoms, people would spend the money," he said. "Not today."

 

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