Recessions, Economic Euthanasia, And The Pandemic
As animal welfare advocates, we always need to demonstrate both compassion and flexibility in considering the needs of animals and their people in many different health, social, and economic climates. Of late, the United States has been experiencing waves of situational change that have impacted both our economic stability and social policies. In the last 15 years, we have seen waves of economic struggle, where people have experienced job loss and have needed to cope with the financial strain of unemployment which has sometimes led to homelessness.
Though “the Great Recession” in the U.S. spanned from approximately late 2007 through 2009, its economic fallout lasted for years beyond that. The Department of Labor reported that between 2008 and 2010, approximately 8 million jobs were dissolved because of business reductions and closures. Because of this, people not only lost their homes, but they also lost their means of caring for their companion animals.
Annual reporting from the San Diego Humane Society between 2008-2010 specified that the number of animals relinquished by their guardians reached over 9,100 (the same two-year time period before the Great Recession equaled just over 5,600 relinquishments by their guardians). With the reverberating effects of the loss of income, individuals were faced with home evictions and foreclosures, needing to choose between caring for themselves or their companion animals.
As the increase of companion relinquishments in the United States rose, so did another circumstance known as “economic euthanasia.” Economic euthanasia can be defined as the “necessity” of companion animal guardians to choose to have their companion animal euthanized because they cannot afford the cost of life-saving veterinary care. Ironically, as individuals in the Great Recession had been struggling financially and emotionally, the need for animal companionship grew. However, their financial limitations created a circumstance in which they were sometimes unable to provide appropriate basic care for their companions, thus increasing the incidences of animal shelter intake and economic euthanasia.
In recent years, we’ve been seeing a time of economic growth where jobs have been plentiful and guardians have welcomed more companion animals into their homes. Now, we’re experiencing a pandemic along with various other aspects of social change, and we can only speculate on the eventual outcomes for people and their companions.
The New Normal
In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, many organizations and their employees transitioned to home offices. These workers are spending more time with their companion animals, something that has been shown to significantly enhance the human-animal bond. Soon after California’s stay-at-home orders were enacted, U.S. News reported that “a potential side effect to the drastic increase in Americans who are socially isolating – whether voluntarily or under orders to do so – is loneliness, which has been linked not only to poor mental health but to serious conditions like heart disease and even death. Dogs, meanwhile, provide soft fur, wagging tails, and potential health benefits.” Needless to say, more of the individuals who are working from home are volunteering with humane organizations to foster adoptable companions.
As we slowly think about shifting back into our “normal” lives and routines, it’s important to reflect on previous circumstances and our reactions. Although this has undoubtedly been a boon time for foster programs nationwide and for the likelihood of more adoptions, workers have started to transition “back to the office” in earnest. Furthermore, the Great Recession showed us that there are still greater incidences of companion relinquishment and incidences of economic euthanasia. Will we once again see a direct impact on the ability of families to not only have companion animals, but most importantly, to provide the necessary veterinary treatment needed to maintain the health of their companions over time?
With the domino effects of job loss and loss of income, we know that guardians do not maintain the health of their animals through medical services, and that there will even be less of a likelihood that they will be able to afford life-saving treatment in cases of emergencies. In this way, a potential increase in economic euthanasia will unfold like a repeating cycle of history. At the same time, people who once found themselves working from home may now find themselves drawn (or forced) back to the workplace, and this, too, has an effect on their companion animals’ wellbeing, including the possibility of relinquishment.
The Foundation for Animal Care and Education (FACE), and other organizations like it, have been founded in an effort to mitigate the need for economic euthanasia. FACE was started in 2006 in San Diego, California by a group of veterinarians and concerned citizens. Its mission is to enhance and preserve the quality of life of animals by providing access to necessary medical care and education. Part of FACE’s vision is to create a world where no companion animal dies due to financial hardship, and the organization works with thousands of community members in San Diego County each year. FACE works in partnership with local veterinarians and veterinary hospitals in order to provide financial assistance to individuals who are confronted with considerable expenses while their companion is experiencing a life-threatening emergency.
Through the Save-A-Life program, families who complete the application process with FACE and are approved for financial veterinary assistance, are able to help provide the lifesaving care their companion needs. Many of these families are unemployed or under-employed, in the military, have experienced sudden personal loss, or are at-risk and vulnerable older adults. For most of these individuals, their companion animal provides far more than just company; they also help in providing a therapeutic respite from anxiety, social isolation, and other chronic environmental stressors.
It is the FACE Foundation’s hope to ease some of the anxiety that is experienced by disadvantaged families who are faced with the difficult choice of caring for themselves or caring for their lifetime companions. FACE is privileged to be able to work with such wonderful members of the veterinary community in order to provide services such as Save-A-Life. However there is a need for more organizations like ours, that can reach out to help provide the resources needed to support companion animals throughout the United States and in other parts of the world.
While the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on companion animal guardianship and sheltering aren’t yet known, we can look back to the Great Recession and make some fairly safe predictions: early surges in fostering or adoption will eventually subside, leading to a potential wave of relinquishments for various reasons; the longer the pandemic goes on, and the longer the economic fallout ripples outward, the harder it will be for people to pay their vet bills; and the harder it is for people to pay their vet bills, the more economic euthanasia will be a problem. Some initial reports about COVID-19 adoption waves have been positive and a sign for hope: according to recent news from the ASPCA, so far about 90% of dogs and 85% of cats who were adopted during the pandemic remain in their adoptive homes. This is a fantastic retention rate — although 10-15% were still returned, and that is a cohort of animals we cannot turn our backs on.
As animal advocates, we shouldn’t wait for these eventualities to happen before we take action. We can act now in our local communities, doing whatever we can to strengthen the capacity and resilience of our sheltering organizations, and strategize ways to help guardians weather this storm with their companions. Animal advocates have long been aware of the social and health benefits that animal companionship can provide. Anytime adoptions and fostering go up, so does the need to educate and support the community in providing the best care they can for the animals they are guardians of. Whether in a time of recession or pandemic, it is incumbent upon the animal protection community to not only give attention to the needs of animals, but also to the needs of the people who love and care for them. In the case of companion animals, our fates are very much intertwined.