Foreclosures: Cats in Peril

Abandoned pets are another offshoot of our troubled economy. Here's what you should know - and how you can help.

With the numbers of foreclosures rising on a daily basis in some areas of the country, realtors and foreclosed-property inspectors relate that they are making an alarming discovery: Pets have been found locked in the home without food or water, abandoned in the streets or let loose in yards. It is obvious that foreclosures are not just affecting people; they are also affecting the pets of evicted families.

Bev Caldwell


With an estimated 34 percent of all home owners owning one or more cats (2007 AVMA US Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook), and more than 1.6 million foreclosures recorded in the month of December 2008 alone, the potential for displaced cats is enormous. Just how many cats are being affected by foreclosures is more elusive than estimating the impact on pet dogs, notes Janet Scarlett DVM, MPH, PhD, professor of Epidemiology and director of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell Universitys College of Veterinary Medicine. A dog that is left behind is usually spotted and found. “A cat that has been put in the yard isnt going to be found by a realtor. For that reason, its much harder to measure the problem accurately,” she notes.

Recent intake numbers (the number of surrendered, stray or abandoned pets that are taken into a shelter) from areas hardest hit economically support the theory that many pets, including cats, are suffering from the first wave of foreclosures. For example, the Los Angeles Animal Services experienced a 20 percent increase in intake numbers in 2008. One Atlanta, GA shelter reported a 71 percent increase in intake numbers last year; and, a shelter in Fulton County, GA tallied a 250 percent intake increase in 2008 during an eight month period (March through December).

Adding to the problem of pets surrendered or abandoned, property laws often prohibit good Samaritans from rescuing pets that have been left behind. “Pets are considered property,” explains Gail Buchwald, senior vice-president, Adoption Center & New York City No-Kill Initiative of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). “When a pet is abandoned, it actually impedes the process of rehoming the pet,” says Buchwald.

Before a pet can be removed from a home that is in foreclosure (i.e., before the bank legally owns the home), Buchwald relates that “Animal control must get confirmation from the owner that the pet was abandoned. This has to be sent out by certified mail, which can take up to two weeks or more for a reply.” And thats if the owner can be found.

“We try to tell everyone that the worst possible thing you can do if youre in this situation is to leave your pet alone in the home or set it free,” says Buchwald. “Our pets are dependent on us. They cant survive on their own. Cats have too many natural predators. Its a formula for disaster.”

Finding Alternatives

As responsible cat owners, most of us consider our cats “family” and would never abandon them, says Buchwald. “We would find a way to take our cats with us.” However, there are pet owners who find themselves in dire situations; foreclosures can result in a “distressful situation,” notes realtor J. Paul Piccoli, owner of Piccoli Partners, Inc. in Virginia Beach, VA. (Piccoli estimates he finds pets that have been left behind at roughly five to ten percent of foreclosure properties.) Once a foreclosure is sold at auction, an eviction notice from the sheriffs office requires the former homeowner to vacate the premises usually within three to five days. The situation can be traumatic for all involved.

Before the economy begins its upswing, many cat owners likely will come in contact with a pet owner who needs help, points out Dr. Scarlett. Knowing where to look for help in your community – or how to initiate programs that can help struggling pet owners – can go far in helping pets stay with their families.

The following are just some ways in which communities can help pet owners needing assistance.

Reduced & Subsidized Veterinary Fees

“Some shelters have veterinary services and offer reduced fees,” says Buchwald. “The ASPCA has the Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in Manhattan. If a pet owner can prove financial need, funding is available.” Call to find out if a shelter in your area provides this service.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) also offers a program among its member animal hospitals that helps to pay for veterinary expenses, says Dr. Scarlett. “If your veterinarian belongs to AAHA, this is a program you can ask about.”

“Angel Funds” may be available, too. Dr. Scarlett explains that in some areas, local veterinarians are working to form groups to pool one to two percent of their profits into a regional fund that will be available to pet owners with a demonstrated financial need.

A number of programs designed for specific groups, such as those to help HIV/AIDs patients or senior citizens with pets, may also be available locally.

Free or Reduced Pet Food

Local food banks in many areas have begun offering pet food along with human food. The bags of food are donated from local businesses and pet owners. A growing number of “Meals on Wheels” programs that provide daily hot meals to homebound seniors are including monthly deliveries of free pet food to program participants.

Temporary Housing & Care

If a pet owner must move, a multitude of sites have popped up online to assist in finding pet-friendly rentals. A few of these sites include:;;; and (look for “pet friendly” tab). Additionally, local shelters and rescues should maintain a list of rental properties in the area that accept pets.

While looking for more permanent housing, pet owners should try to find a friend, family member or neighbor who will foster the animal for a limited time. The pet will be most comfortable with someone it knows, says Buchwald. If someone familiar cannot take the pet on a temporary basis, it may be possible to find temporary fostering through a shelter or rescue.

Rehoming a Pet

Though the idea of surrendering a pet is not something most pet owners would ever want to consider, for those who are in terrible financial constraints and cannot take their pets with them, ensuring that a cat has the best possible home is the most responsible action a person can take. Finding a new home for the pet without going through the shelter system is often preferable for some owners, says Buchwald. “It gives you the freedom to meet the potential owners and it does give the pet owner some closure.”

Tools that can be used by an owner to place a kitty include (which offers pet classified postings), suggest Buchwald, and placing posters around the community in areas such as: veterinary offices, public libraries, pet supply stores (that dont sell pets) and community centers.

Though many pet owners are reluctant to use local shelters or cat rescues, these organizations provide a pet the opportunity to be rehomed. When surrendering a cat, it is important to provide as much information about the animal as possible, says Dr. Scarlett. The pet owner should provide all medical records, as well as give the intake staff an honest summary of both good and challenging qualities of the cat. “Be honest so the pet has the best chance of placement,” emphasizes Dr. Scarlett.

And, what do you do if you suspect a neighbor hasnt made the right choice and left a cat behind? “Notify animal control as a concerned citizen and make a good faith report,” says Dr. Scarlett. “Tell them that you think someone left an animal in the home or yard, that youre worried, and could someone please come out and check.”

Though not every pet owner might make the right decisions while under the duress of a foreclosure, concerned cat lovers can be active in their communities and help support programs that prevent pets from becoming just another casualty.