The woman called the animal shelter in tears. Her dog had been hit by a car and had a crushed pelvis and a broken hip. The cost of surgery was beyond her financial means, and she was facing the decision to euthanize her dog.

At the other end of the line, Patty Alexander sprang into action. Alexander, who manages the Austin Pets Alive! PASS program — Positive Alternatives to Shelter Surrender — knew exactly what she needed to do.

“The dog was in tremendous pain, so we had to hurry," Alexander said. "I had her call around to low-cost veterinarians, and she got an estimate of $2,000 for the surgery. She sent me a picture of her dog, and I set up a fundraiser and posted it on my Facebook page. My followers all pitched in, with one lady giving $1,000."

Thanks to Alexander’s quick thinking, the story has a happy ending. "The dog was able to get the surgery and stay with his owner,” she says.

Alexander’s story may seem unusual, but it’s not. More and more shelters are helping animals and people stay together when circumstances threaten to tear them apart. Known as pet retention programs or shelter intervention programs (SIPs), they step in when people are faced with giving up a pet because they are unable to find pet-friendly housing or pay a pet deposit or have veterinary bills they can’t afford.

Successful SIPs may also host pet food banks or offer cat litter and other supplies for people who are struggling financially or provide grants for boarding a pet after a house fire, owner illness or domestic violence incident, says Holly J. Putnam, DVM, a faculty clinician with the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine program at Cornell.

“These programs can help families to keep their pets during times of financial hardship,” she says.

Cat who needed a shelter intervention program

How SIPs Help

Among the shelters across the country with shelter intervention programs are Downtown Dog Rescue (which also helps cats) in Los Angeles, Jacksonville Humane Society in Florida and Louisiana SPCA. They are there to help when people can’t afford license fees or fees to reclaim pets from shelters or when they face an expensive veterinary emergency, need help paying for food or other needs or could use some assistance with fence or gate repairs or installation. They may offer low-cost or free spay/neuter surgery, vaccinations or microchips; help people find pet-friendly landlords; or cover the pet deposit on a pet-welcoming rental.

SIPs help pet owners in a wide range of circumstances. Denise Deisler, director of the Jacksonville Humane Society (JHS), recalls working with a man serving in the Navy who received short notice of an overseas deployment and didn’t have anyone who could care for his two cats. Deisler arranged for the cats to be boarded until the man arrived at his new station in Washington, D.C. Once he was settled there, he drove down to Jacksonville, where he was reunited with his cats and took them home with him.

In some cases, the goal of SIPs is to help people help themselves. The PASS program at Austin Pets Alive!, which receives 650 to 750 calls and emails per month, has a hotline that pet owners can email or call. Alexander can then respond with resources they can use to find low-cost medical care or suggestions on how to raise funds to pay a pet deposit or veterinary bill. In a crisis situation, she may be able to refer them to a kennel that has donated boarding.

At Downtown Dog Rescue, counselors advise owners on options available to them — options they may simply have not known about. A shelter or rescue counselor can help them apply for a grant (think of it as “Peticaid”), start a GoFundMe account, figure out things to sell at a swap meet or coach them through conversations with landlords.

“More often than not, retention doesn’t cost anything,” Deisler says. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of sharing some information and helping people to understand what their other choices and options are.”

Behavior issues can also threaten a pet’s future if no one steps in with help. Shelters are making inroads there as well, through counseling and classes.

“Many shelters have a behaviorist or staff member knowledgeable in behavior who can offer advice to members of the public who may be considering relinquishing pets for behavior concerns,” Dr. Putnam says. “Examples include inappropriate elimination, jumping or mouthy behaviors and separation anxiety. This counseling may occur over the phone or via email.”

At JHS, free training and behavior counseling are available at the shelter. They also recruit private trainers who are willing to donate their time or work with owners at reduced rates. When necessary, Deisler says, “We will pay for private training as well.”

Safety Net

The important thing to recognize is that the pet owner — even one considering surrendering a pet — isn’t a bad person. Helping them in a nonjudgmental way is key.

“They are just people who run into circumstances they didn’t foresee and weren’t equipped to deal with,” Deisler says.

It takes time and effort to establish and maintain a SIP. Shelters network with businesses and foundations to get the support they need. The programs can’t help in every situation, but they do help reduce the risk that pets will enter a shelter, with the accompanying physical and behavioral stress. And when they can give owners an alternative to losing a beloved companion, it’s a win — for the animals, the people and the shelters.

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