THE BLOG

Helping Pets Before They're in Harm's Way

05/01/2015 03:27 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

2015-05-01-1430507445-1027386-huffdog.jpgWe can't go back in time to protect animals before they become victims of neglect and cruelty, but there is a next-best thing. At the ASPCA, we call it Cruelty Intervention Advocacy (CIA), a holistic intervention approach that takes into account how the societal challenges that pet owners often face -- including poverty, housing restrictions, lack of transportation, and limited resources -- profoundly affect the animals under their care.

As we commemorate the fifth year of our CIA program, which started in New York City, I'd like to share why this uncommon approach is so necessary to keep animals alive.

Typically -- and especially in the media -- we focus on homeless animals at shelters, in foster homes, or on the streets, concentrating our efforts on rescue and adoption. And that's certainly very important.

But imagine starting much sooner, when pets are still in homes but on the verge of being relinquished to shelters or abandoned to the street because their owners don't have the financial, logistical, or other personal means to take care of them. In addition to becoming homeless, these animals can end up being hoarded, neglected, or abused.

This is the moment when targeted interventions can make a big difference -- talking to people in underserved communities about their pets and the barriers they face, in order to connect them to support and resources.

The next step can take many forms, including:

  • Providing free or low-cost spay/neuter, vaccination, and other veterinary treatments
  • Making emergency veterinary care available for pets in need
  • Distributing free insulated dog houses to protect dogs who live primarily outdoors
  • Intervening in hoarding situations to help individuals reduce the number of animals in their homes, and to provide necessary care to those animals
  • Connecting families to social services that may help them improve their overall conditions, which in turn helps animals

This work is especially relevant in the midst of a sudden crisis such as a natural disaster or domestic violence. A 2014 collaboration of our CIA program and Urban Resource Institute's PALS (People and Animals Living Safely) program brought about New York City's first-ever initiative to shelter domestic violence victims with their pets, a critical service when you consider the extreme perils of domestic violence for both humans and animals.

This owner-aware approach is also very beneficial to shelters. When more pets are kept with their families, more shelter space opens up for animals who need it most, and shelter staff can spend more time and energy adopting out each animal in their care.

Our own successes help put these interventions in perspective. Since the CIA was formed in 2010, over 1,600 ASPCA financial grants have gone toward emergency veterinary care for low-income pet owners, nearly 2,000 animals have been spayed or neutered, and crucial services have been provided in over 200 hoarding cases.

In June 2014, the CIA program expanded to Los Angeles, where our services have prevented over 1,600 pets from entering Los Angeles County shelters. In addition, hundreds of animals have been provided with vaccines at disaster preparedness events in low-income areas of New York City.

One such beneficiary is Patty, who in 2014 moved with her husband, their two daughters, and their 5-year-old terrier Abby from Florida to New York City so Patty's husband could take a new job. But the position never materialized, leaving both Patty and her husband unemployed, with dwindling savings.

The family ended up at a homeless shelter, and though they tried to sneak Abby in, her barking made it impossible for them to stay. Desperate, Patty put Abby in a crate in their car. A passerby noticed and called the NYPD, who retrieved Abby and took her to the ASPCA.

This story could have ended with Abby going to a shelter and taking up precious cage space, as well as the shelter staff's time, energy, and resources. But in Abby's situation, the CIA team took over the case and met with the family. No citation was issued, and a foster home was found for Abby until the family could find longer-term housing. After several months, the family managed to find an apartment in Brooklyn, New York, and was reunited with Abby.

It's remarkable that Patty was able to stay connected to Abby during the most challenging of situations, but we hope to make that outcome less remarkable over time. There's simply no safer place for an animal than in a home with responsible owners, and with the help of supporters, advocates, and humane leaders, we can provide pet owners with resources that will keep families intact and stop suffering well before it starts.

Matthew Bershadker is President and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).