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Personal woes and lack of pet-owning education can lead to being irresponsible (and sometimes cruel) with animals

Clare Ennis of Canyon View Animal Hospital in Littleton holds "Esther," who was dropped off in a box and had numerous medical issues. Esther has been at Canyon View for the past six months. Photo by Matt Hollinshead

About six months ago, a white, frail cat named Esther was dropped off to Canyon View Animal Hospital in a box by her owner. The box containing Esther also had a note that said, “I’m a stray, please take care of me.”

Interestingly, the owner did not physically come into the clinic to explain the reason behind it, let alone to explain Esther’s complicated medical issues.

Afterward, Canyon View discovered Esther was not a stray cat. She was 15 years-old, skin and bone. She also had the feline version of herpes. The illness was bad to the point where her eyes became infected.

Thus, there was one big question that remained unanswered: was Esther’s owner unable to take care of her to that extent?

“The problem is people get a cute puppy or a cute kitty and don’t think about the cost of getting them spayed, neutered and all the vaccines, and they aren’t prepared for a crisis when their animal gets sick,” Dr. Paula Bumpers said. “It can cost 200 to a couple thousand dollars if they’re really sick. So for us, we always try to encourage people to get health insurance for their pets, but not many people do that.”

Dr. Bumpers also mentioned time commitment as another issue that must be addressed. That issue is not only about really being able to take care of animals, but to also train them.

“It’s actually very cheap to go to these puppy classes,” Bumpers said. “The problem is a lot of people don’t do it, and then dogs have behavior problems later in life.”

Aside from a lack of preparation for properly training and taking care of a pet, Dr. Bumpers also said the current economic crisis might be a reason why some people don’t make the time to do anything other than feed their pets. Citing the fact that pets were being dropped off to shelters in 2008 and 2009, Bumpers believed it boiled down to one thing.

“People couldn’t afford their houses, so they had to give up their pets,” Bumpers said. “A lot of people couldn’t afford vet care anymore.”

The number of animals in shelters alone are very telling. Here is some information on animal shelters in the United States today, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA):

– There are about 5,000 community animal shelters nationwide that are independent; there is no national organization monitoring these shelters. The terms “humane society” and “SPCA” are generic; shelters using those names are not part of the ASPCA or the Humane Society of the United States. Currently, no government institution or animal organization is responsible for tabulating national statistics for the animal protection movement.

– Approximately 5 million to 7 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year, and approximately 3 million to 4 million are euthanized (60 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats). Shelter intakes are about evenly divided between those animals relinquished by owners and those picked up by animal control. These are national estimates; the percentage of euthanasia may vary from state to state.

– According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), less than 2 percent of cats and only 15 to 20 percent of dogs are returned to their owners. Most of these were identified with tags, tattoos or microchips.

– Twenty-five percent of dogs who enter local shelters are purebred. (Source: NCPPSP)

– Only 10 percent of the animals received by shelters have been spayed or neutered, while 78 percent of pet dogs and 88 percent of pet cats are spayed or neutered, according to the American Pet Products Association (Source: APPA).

– More than 20 percent of people who leave dogs in shelters adopted them from a shelter. (Source: NCPPSP)

Because the number of animals in the United States continues to grow, that increased animal overpopulation in the shelters.

According to the ASPCA:

– It is impossible to determine how many stray dogs and cats live in the United States; estimates for cats alone range up to 70 million.

– The average number of litters a fertile cat produces is one to two a year; the average number of kittens is four to six per litter.

– The average number of litters a fertile dog produces is one a year; the average number of puppies is four to six.

– Owned cats and dogs generally live longer, healthier lives than strays.

– Many strays are lost pets who were not kept properly indoors or provided with identification.

– Only 10 percent of the animals received by shelters have been spayed or neutered, while 78 percent of pet dogs and 88 percent of pet cats are spayed or neutered.

– The cost of spaying or neutering a pet is less than the cost of raising puppies or kittens for a year.

Ultimately, animals who enter shelters did not likely receive the necessary care they needed prior to entering those shelters.

Once again, there’s the question of, “Do owners truly have little to no time to do properly take care of their pets, from getting them spayed/neutered to simply feeding them?”

Stacey Ballantyne, a veterinarian assistant at Canyon View Animal Hospital, believes the economy and dealing with one’s own personal problems are poor reasons for an individual to not take care of a pet on a regular basis.

“To me, my pets are like my kids,” said Ballantyne, who has one cat and one bird. “So, I feel that nobody is going to allow their son or daughter to go downhill without getting them proper care. I feel that some of the things have gone on the back-burner with some of the animals. I understand if you’re having a hard time with your financial situation, you can put off the vaccines if you need to. If your dog has been vomiting or your cat has been vomiting, having bloody diarrhea or something like that for a week, I tell people, ‘would you allow your children to do that?’ I feel like (the economy) is a poor excuse. It’s very frustrating. Routine care can wait, sick animals can’t.”

Sadly, those who do not do their homework before investing in a pet tend to not know what to do whenever the animal falls ill or suffers a seriously injury. Those types of pet owners don’t take a closer look at what might really be going on.

“Their animals have been suffering for a long time, and they just have no idea,” Bumpers said of many pet owners dealing with injured and/or ill animals. “I don’t know what they expect. They say, ‘Well, she didn’t act like she was in pain.’ And I think, ‘What does she have to do to demonstrate to you that she’s in a lot of pain? Does she need to scream out in pain? How much pain does she need to be in for you to notice that she’s in pain?’ They just don’t realize it. They’re just not aware. People just need to be educated better about what pain looks like in an animal.”

While being uneducated about how to assess their pet’s condition is one thing, animal neglect and cruelty is something entirely different.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, dogs are considered the most common animal cruelty victims. There’s also a correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence.

Here are some statistics from 2007 (according to the U.S. Humane Society) regarding the matter:

64.5% (1,212) involved dogs

18% (337) involved cats

25% (470) involved other animals

Reported abuse against pit bulls appears to be on the rise: in 2000–2001, pit bulls were involved in 13% of reported dog-abuse cases; in 2007, they were involved in 25% of reported dog-abuse cases.

*some cases involved multiple species

Horses

According to the American Horse Council, Americans own more than 9 million horses, up from more than 6 million in the mid-1990s. Backyard breeding fueled the boom in pet horses. Of the more than 2 million Americans who own horses, more than one-third have a household income of less than $50,000.

Neither the total number of horse neglect cases nor the percentage of total animal abuse cases classified as horse neglect has risen since the closure of all U.S. horse slaughter plants.

Livestock

As HSUS investigations into slaughterhouses and cattle auctions have revealed, animal abuse abounds in the factory farm industry. Despite increased feed prices, we found no indication in the news media that the number of livestock neglect cases is increasing, other than a few shocking, high-profile cases. This may, however, simply be a reflection of the weak protections afforded to livestock under state animal cruelty laws.

Many states specifically exclude livestock or any “common” agricultural practices from their cruelty laws, and even when good laws exist, it can sometimes be difficult to convince law enforcement to make an arrest and/or to seize livestock who are being neglected or abused.

Over the past few years, the number of reported animal neglect cases involving cows and pigs has dipped slightly.

In 2007, there were 20 reported neglect cases involving cows and eight involving pigs, down from 33 cow neglect cases and 11 pig neglect cases in 2006, and 26 cow neglect cases and nine pig neglect cases in 2005.

Domestic Violence

Government data scholarly studies of the prevalence of animal cruelty in domestic violence cases reveals a staggering number of animals are victimized by abusive partners each year.

The HSUS estimates that nearly 1 million animals a year are abused or killed in connection with domestic violence.

Statistics:

About 2,168,000 women and men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner in the U.S. every year (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000).

63% of U.S. households own a pet (APPMA, 2006).

71% of domestic violence victims report that their abuser also targeted their animal (Ascione, 1997).

In 2007, 7% of media-reported animal cruelty cases either occurred in the context of a domestic dispute or involved a person with a history of domestic violence.

The stats essentially point to something in need of further exploration: Whenever one struggles with their own personal issues, they take it out on other people. That eventually also leads to abusers taking their emotions out on their animals. At the end of the day, it’s difficult for people to imagine it can actually happen because animals depend on their owners for food, shelter, love and personal care.

“There’s a correlation between hurting people and hurting animals,” said Clare Ennis, the office manager at Canyon View Animal Hospital. “I think that if you’re already struggling with some mental health issues, have a violent personality, you’re more likely to hurt an animal.”

Prior to the 1980s, the issue of animal neglect and cruelty wasn’t considered a felony. But now that it has become more of concern in recent years, the following legislative trends look like this:

– 47 states currently have felony provisions for animal cruelty. (Those without are Idaho, North Dakota, and South Dakota.)

– Before 1986, only four states had felony animal cruelty laws.

– 42 of the 47 state felony animal cruelty laws were enacted in the last three decades: 13 were enacted between 1986 and 1996, and 28 more were enacted between 1997 and 2011.

First vs. Second Offense

– 43 of the 47 state felony provisions are first-offense provisions.

– Four are second-offense felonies (Iowa, Mississippi, Ohio, and Pennsylvania).

– Within the 43 first-offense felony states, several have a first-offense provision for aggravated cruelty, torture, companion animal cruelty, etc., in addition to a second-offense provision for cruelty to animals.

States Finding Second-Offense Laws Inadequate

– In the last decade, at least 6 states have enacted second- or third-offense felony animal cruelty laws, only to readdress and upgrade them to first-offense laws within a few years:

Alaska (3rd 2008, 1st 2010)
Indiana (2nd 1998, 1st 2002)
Kentucky (2nd 2003, 1st 2007)
Nebraska (2nd 2002, 1st 2003)
Tennessee (2nd 2001 and 2002, 1st 2004)
Virginia (2nd 1999, 1st 2002)

While states have taken legislative action, there’s still a financial issue in trying to pay the resources designed to tackle the problem even more effectively.

Those limited financial resources even affect animal hospitals and clinics.

“The economy definitely affects veterinary spending,” Ennis said.

Despite the constant worries of the financial and time-commitment aspects of taking care of a pet, Dr. Bumpers believes being educated about and making time for owning pets is ultimately the only thing owners can really do to make the process easier.

One story of animal abandonment shows how much committing yourself to taking care of an animal by itself can make a difference.

One of Dr. Bumpers’ clients was driving on northbound Santa Fe Drive from Douglas County to meet a friend on one Christmas Eve afternoon almost 10 years ago.

The woman passed a puppy on the side of the road, and she decided to turn around and him home. According to the woman, whose name wasn’t revealed in the article, the puppy (later named Moses) was very thin, small, had a terrible cough, clumps of his hair started falling out and there were scabs all over his body.

Although the origins of Moses’ condition at the time remain mystery, according to the article, the woman’s first priority was to get him out of the cold, clean up his stench and wounds and feed him.

Moses was very weak at first.

Moses (named after Moses in the Bible, who was also found as an infant) initially couldn’t eat or drink, likely because he didn’t understand that basic concept. Soon enough, though, he managed to consume multiple meals and fall asleep comfortably.

The day after Christmas, Moses was examined by Dr. Bumpers. She determined that his condition was bad to where she couldn’t anesthetize him to treat his many health woes.

His other ailments included a tooth getting knocked out and lodging in his gum, as well as bowed legs (where a growth formed due to malnutrition). Working tirelessly to treat Moses, Dr. Bumpers estimated that he had been on his own for at least one month. Considering the cold temperatures, foxes, coyotes and traffic nearby, Bumpers thought it was miracle he even survived.

About three months after he started receiving treatment and care from Dr. Bumpers and his loving owner, Moses gradually regained his strength and became “full of pep, curiosity and excitement,” according to the article.

The entire message behind this story of survival, as well as being a responsible pet owner, is that even if one is struggling in any part of their life, they still have the responsibility of properly taking care of their animals.

Although there are limitations to directly approaching the issue of animal neglect and cruelty, such as not being able to immediately confront a potentially abusive owner and possibly take an animal from that environment in a legal manner, educating current and future pet owners in what it means to be “responsible” is something Canyon View Animal Hospital views as an issue that must be immediately addressed.

Given the high commitment level that’s necessary to become a responsible pet owner, Dr. Bumpers views owning an animal as a privilege, not a right.

“You shouldn’t have a pet unless you can afford them,” Bumpers said. “A lot of people just feel like they have a right to have a pet and don’t need to necessarily have them vaccinated, don’t have to have them dewormed. I wish animals weren’t so easy to get. I wish places that sold animals also were required to give people some information about training their pet, a little bit more about caring for their pet.”

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