Good dog, hard choice: Downturn puts pressure on Placer County pet owners

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Economic hard times have put the squeeze on many pet owners. And while the idea of paying off a four-figure bill for a pet procedure or even putting food in the dog dish when a dog owner’s family is hungry or in need of new clothes is daunting to some, extraordinary measures are occurring on a near-daily basis. North Auburn’s Suzy McMinn epitomizes that special bond that develops between a pet and its owner – and the lengths she’ll go to keep her dog. McMinn isn’t close to wealthy. She lives in a mobile-home park and her Social Security check barely pays for her own needs. But she also has a partial hearing loss and adopted the terrier Peppermint Patty several years ago as her ears. Patty, is obedient and loyal while serving as McMinn’s companion animal. It fetches her slippers when McMinn returns home and picks up her own dog dish and returns it for washing when her meal is completed. When a fire occurred last week at the mobile-home park McMinn lives in, Peppermint Patty was there to alert her. Several weeks ago, Peppermint Patty took off after a squirrel and tore a meniscus. McMinn said she’s careful with her finances, filling her car’s gas tank up once a month and walking if it nears empty. But she wasn’t willing to see her dog given up and possibly put down because of the leg injury. Peppermint Patty had the needed leg surgery and McMinn put the $2,370 veterinary bill on her credit card, in spite of her limited finances. She has since has been helped Christian Valley resident Lucille McKevitt in trying to recoup some of those expenditures and keep from dealing with high monthly interest pay-outs. Fliers have been put up at the Auburn Courthouse Athletic Club and the South Auburn Veterinary Clinic to donate and a total of nearly $300 has been raised so far. “She’s the best dog in the world,” McMinn said, obviously a little biased. McKevitt, a co-founder of the Auburn Area Animal Rescue Foundation (AAARF), said she’s known McMinn for several years and has seen how financially strapped she is. “When you have a dog, especially like that, you just can’t say that you don’t have the money and have it euthanized,” McKevitt said. Placer County Animal Services and the Placer County SPCA have both witnessed the impact of a burst housing bubble in the area, the ensuing loss of jobs and a general economic malaise that continues to this day. That means, in many instances, making a tough decision to exclude a family pet from their lives, as they move into an apartment or rental unit that needs a pet deposit, or surviving on limited means and not being able to afford a pet anymore. “People are upside-down on their mortgages,” said Mike Winters, the county Animal Services Division program manager. “Usually the husband or the father is bringing in the pet – they can’t make the bills and someone recently lost a job. For the kids, who may come along, it’s a traumatic time.” Leilani Vierra, Placer County SPCA executive director, said her organization has been able to help quite a few families through an SOS program that helps provide funding for one-time expenditures to help pay veterinary costs or temporary boarding. SOS provides up to $500 for pet owners who show they would otherwise be able to provide for their pets. Even so the parade of pets that have been caught up in an economic downturn they have no control over continues. Winters said the North Auburn animal shelter sees a family pet brought in every couple of weeks due directly to lack of finances. Vierra said the number of dogs received in January and February was up almost 50 from the same period a year earlier. “We’ve been able to help quite a few families,” Vierra said. “When people have lost a lot, a pet is something they can hold onto.” .