Thursday, November 20, 2014

Keep Orlando dogs at home: Ideas to keep pets out of shelters

This is a post for Orlando's BIG Exchange Blog-Along to find a solution to an issue here in Central Florida.

Every year, around 20,000 dogs and cats enter Orange County Animal Services in Orlando.

And every year, almost 10,000 are euthanized. About half.

There are lots of reasons pets end up in shelters. But if you've ever walked through a kennel and looked at each of the cards, what will break your heart is how many were surrendered because their owner couldn't take care of them -- either they had to move or the pet had health problems or the owner simply couldn't afford it anymore. I'll never forget the times I've watched people walk out of a shelter crying because they had to surrender their pet.

Lulu was one of those. Her owners were moving and couldn't take her with them (no pets allowed). She was only six months old. Fortunately she was also at Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando, which is almost a no-kill shelter.

The dogs and cats surrendered to Orange County Animal Services are not as lucky.

The Metro Orlando area remains one of the top in the country for foreclosure. How many people are still forced to leave their homes and have to give up their pet?

Unfortunately not every issue is salvageable. For people with a dog considered an "aggressive breed," many apartment complexes shut the door. If only there was a way to deal with that...

But I think we in Orlando can find a way to keep more pets with their families. It is much cheaper for the county if these pets stay with their families than if the shelter has to care for them.

Chyna (A305742) is a year old and at Orange County Animal Services.
Establish a fund for animal assistance 

Groups across the country provide assistance for people who need medical help, apartment help, etc. For instance, Orange County Animal Services has a pet pantry. In the page for the pantry, this is written:

"Life can throw surprises at you," said Dil Luther, division manager of Orange County Animal Services. "Anyone can be caught off guard by unexpected expenses like car or health issues and we do not want financial struggles to separate a pet from a loving family."

But while we have some scattered efforts to help with spaying and neutering, micro-chipping and even food, we don't have a dedicated fund to help people better afford their dogs.

My suggestion is modeled after Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship Program for students. In exchange for county tax credits, Orange County-based businesses donate to the fund, which is run by the county.

Money in the fund is split up into three categories: home assistance, medical assistance and behavioral assistance. Residents (and they must be full-time Orange County residents) then apply for a one-time grant for one of those three categories.

  • Home assistance can be used to pay for pet deposits and pet rent, a growing expense in the apartment rental world. 
  • Medical assistance can be used to pay for extraordinary veterinary bills (not for routine office visits). The fund can work with a choice group of vets to reduce the cost of those services (Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando has a clinic that provides reduced services).
  • Behavioral assistance allows pet parents to get financial help to pay for a trainer/behaviorist for their pet. They must work off an already-vetted list of trainers/behaviorists that the county has. 
This fund should not affect the overall budget for Orange County Animal Services.

Luna (A305889) is 3 years old and at Orange County Animal Services.
Tax credits to keep pet deposits down

In addition, the county should also offer tax credits to landlords and apartment complexes who reduce the cost of pet deposits and pet rent to make it more affordable for residents. 

Pet rent and a rise in pet deposits is a growing problem for apartment renters in the U.S. Some apartment managers say they need the safety net against pet damage, but according to a recent CBS article, some managers say they charge it because they can. 

Pet deposits in Orlando can run from $250 to $500, and in some cases are charged per pet. By reducing pet deposits, not only will it help people trying to keep their pets, but it might encourage people to adopt too. 

Dexter (A293832) is a year old and at Orange County Animal Services.
Community bulletin boards to promote low cost services

But why stop there? Remember when I said there were scattered services for people who need help caring for pets?

Did you know about Orange County's pet food pantry? How about Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando's low-cost vet services, including spaying or neutering? Or Pet Alliance's Meals on Wheels for seniors program? 

Do people know these programs and others even exist? 

In city dog parks like Lake Baldwin Park in Winter Park and Sanford Paw Park, there are big community bulletin boards. 

In Orange County's parks, any bulletin boards are often not close to the dog parks. They're closer to bathrooms or playgrounds.

I suggest using money from the parks and recreation budget to put up those bulletin boards immediately outside the parks and keep updated listings for this information and other events. 

People don't go to parks? Make it a point to put this info in the hands of those who can help -- vets offices, pet shops, apartment leasing offices, community centers, malls and more. Put it together in a new adopters packet and hand it to shelters and rescue groups to hand out. Hand it out at farmers markets, fairs and other events. This information needs to be easier to find.

Scrappy (A220855) is 9 years old and is at Orange County Animal Services.
By handling these issues, we can hope to keep pets out of shelters and in their homes. But those aren't the only pets we save.

There's a saying in the animal rescue world that I will paraphrase here: Keeping a pet out of a shelter saves two pets: that pet, and the one who could be euthanized. By reducing the shelter pet population, Orange County Animal Services can give more time to pets in the shelter who need a little extra help to get out.

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