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Health & Science

Animal Protection Groups Help Financially Strapped Families

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

OK. Pet adoption has surged during this pandemic. It makes sense. It's so comforting to have something soft and furry when we are isolated and stressed to hold onto. I got two puppies, Lola (ph) and Milo (ph). There is a lot of science to back up those fuzzy feelings. Research shows that having a pet helps with both mental and physical health. But for those families hard hit by job losses and financial strain, caring for their pet has become challenging. NPR's Patti Neighmond has more.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Nydia Bonefont's (ph) 9-year-old dog, Papi (ph), has been with her since he was just 4 weeks old.

NYDIA BONEFONT: And he's been the love and the joy of my life.

NEIGHMOND: Papi's a beagle-Cavalier mix.

BONEFONT: He's adorable. He likes to play with me. He sleep with me. He walks everywhere with me. He likes to have breakfast with me. He's been everything for me.

NEIGHMOND: Especially during the pandemic - he's been a steady and reassuring companion. But then in May, Papi got sick. He wasn't walking and seemed to be moping.

BONEFONT: I almost started crying myself. I was worried and anxious because I noticed he was just lying down. He didn't want to eat. He was limping.

NEIGHMOND: Bonifant lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was laid off just before the pandemic. She couldn't find work. She bought food for Papi on credit, but Papi needed veterinary care, and she knew she couldn't afford it.

BONEFONT: It was a nightmare.

NEIGHMOND: Finally, she turned to the ASPCA that set up an appointment for Papi.

BONEFONT: They gave me some medication for him for pain and for inflammation.

NEIGHMOND: Turned out, Papi had arthritis. And by the next day...

BONEFONT: He started walking better, started eating. The ASPCA, they were like my angels.

NEIGHMOND: There was no charge for the visit or the medication. ASPCA President Matt Bershadker expected the pandemic to push more people and pets into poverty.

MATT BERSHADKER: Pre-pandemic, there was about twenty, 21 million pets living in poverty. If you consider a 10% unemployment rate, that's going to launch another 4-plus million pets into poverty. So we knew immediately that our services were going to be needed to keep those pets in their home and to keep them healthy and to improve their quality of life.

NEIGHMOND: Research shows having a pet improves both physical and mental health. Just petting them for five minutes can reduce blood pressure and increase hormones associated with happiness. A pet can also reduce anxiety and even depression, so it benefits both humans and animals, says Bershadker, to keep pets in their homes. Sadly, he sees financially stressed families face tragic choices.

BERSHADKER: Am I going to pay my rent? Am I going to feed my pet? Am I going to pay my utility bill? Am I going to feed my pet? And what we wanted to do was alleviate just a little bit of stress, a little bit of worry for these pet owners so they can keep one of the most important things in their lives with them.

NEIGHMOND: The organization's donated 3.8 million pounds of free emergency food for dogs, cats and horses. They've treated more than 26,000 dogs and cats with free veterinary services, and they've provided emergency shelter when pet owners get sick and have to be hospitalized.

BERSHADKER: We're able to say to them, we will take care of your dog; we will take care of your cat. We will keep him or her healthy and safe. You take care of yourself, and he or she will be here when you're ready.

NEIGHMOND: For Jacqueline Cruz (ph), free vet care meant she didn't have to give up her young cat, S'mores (ph), much loved by her 17-year-old daughter whose anxiety worsened during the pandemic.

JACQUELINE CRUZ: She would look a little sad or overwhelmed. And S'mores will just pop up. And he'll sit next to her, and he'll start meowing. And then she'll start cuddling him. And she's like, I love him. She was like, sometimes I feel like I need him more than probably what he needs me (laughter).

NEIGHMOND: And for Cruz, it's a relief to know her daughter won't have to lose the pet that's helping her through this difficult time.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.