Millions of dogs and cats could be put down or abandoned, it is feared, as people struggle with their pets’ bills in the cost of living crisis.
Campaigners are warning that without government intervention, swathes of Britain’s 20 million companion animals are at risk of being euthanized or will suffer from a lack of veterinary care because of the cost.
Ministers are being urged to set up a “cost of living pet crisis fund” to limit the damage and to help owners, many of whom are heartbroken at having to give away their animals.
A new poll for Dogs Trust reveals that more than one in 10 owners – 13 per cent – have been forced into debt to care for their animal.
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RSPCA research this year found that soaring household bills are the biggest threat to animal welfare.
According to the charity’s Animal Kindness Index Survey, 28 per cent of pet owners are worried about being able to care for their pets. The concern is especially high among cat owners, with a third (32 per cent) worried about being able to care properly for their pet.
Nearly one in five owners (19 per cent) are worried about feeding their pets, the charity said.
And rehoming charities report soaring numbers of cats and dogs being handed to them this year as inflation has gripped the nation, while fewer people are prepared to adopt because of the cost.
The Dogs Trust charity says inquiries from people wanting to give up their pooches shot up by 26.5 per cent this autumn, to 14,128, from 11,168 last autumn.
“For the whole of 2022 so far we have received 42,318 handover inquiries,” a spokesperson said.
“Since September we have asked people if the cost of living is a factor in their need to hand over their dog to us; 22 per cent of calls have been logged as cost of living-specific – that’s over a fifth.”
Dominic Dyer, a leading animal welfare campaigner who has launched a government petition calling for the fund, warned that more dogs and cats could be euthanized in the coming year than were lost in the pet cull at the start of the Second World War.
As many as 750,000 British pets were killed in just one week in the summer of 1939 after the government told owners it would be kinder to have their animals put down because of expected food shortages.
Mr Dyer, who this year played a key role in the government decision to let Ukrainian refugees bring their pets to Britain, said: “The nation faces a companion-animal-welfare crisis of unprecedented proportions as a direct result of the cost of living crisis .
“Without intervention, millions of dogs and cats are at risk of being abandoned, suffering due to delays receiving veterinary care or being euthanized on economic – rather than welfare – grounds.
“Losing a pet due to the cost of living crisis will not only have a significant and negative impact on the emotional and mental health of millions of families across Britain, but it will also negatively affect those working in the charity and veterinary sectors.”
The RSPCA reported 22,908 abandonments in the first seven months of this year, compared with 18,375 in the same period last year.
And research by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) found 9 per cent of owners – 2 million pets – said they would have to consider rehoming their animal if they were not able to afford vet bills.
Owners searching for charity support with medical care bills have shot up by more than half – 51 per cent.
Vets say animal welfare is being compromised, with some owners delaying seeking care because of financial difficulties or even trying to treat animals themselves, which can prove fatal, according to the British Veterinary Association.
Iain McGill, a vet in Brighton, told The Independent: “I’ve had a lot of clients asking for help with keeping the bills low, going for fewer investigations and only essential treatment. I am sure some people aren’t actually making appointments for reasons of financial hardship.”
Under Mr Dyer’s plan, animal charities would carry out pet care using taxpayer cash, supported by the veterinary industry and involving a national helpline and pop-up clinics.
It would also provide funding for a network of pet food banks in supermarkets, pet care stores and food banks.
He said local authorities should support the fund so that dogs and cats were not left on the streets to suffer or pose a danger to the public.
More than half of UK adults own a pet, 27 per cent owning dogs (10.2 million dogs) and 24 per cent owning cats (11.1 million cats), statistics show.
The PDSA estimates that owners should expect to spend at least £5,000 over the lifetime of a small dog but, depending on the breed, size and lifespan, this could rise to at least £12,200. For cats, the minimum expected lifetime cost is £11,100. That is without the cost of veterinary care or extras such as dog-sitters.
Owen Sharp, chief executive of the Dogs Trust, said: “We already have 1,000 dogs on the waiting list to come into our rehoming centres.
“However, we have real concerns that, despite our best efforts, we will get to a point where we’ll be forced to start turning dogs away. If this happens, dog welfare will become a true emergency.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “The government is actively considering the impact of the rise in the cost of living on all aspects of people’s lives.
“We meet regularly with animal welfare stakeholders and sector groups to monitor the situation and identify where more support may be needed. We welcome the support these groups are providing for their members during these difficult times.”