There are many ways to help pets in need. Thank goodness.
But “need” is a broad term. It's good to know the difference between something you can certainly change—like helping a pet that has been injured—and something that is tougher to address, like a pet that is allowed to wander or is abused in the home.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that 6.3 million pets enter shelters and about 920,000 shelter pets are euthanized each year. The number of pets that are euthanized was far higher in previous years, so our collective efforts are helping!
If your heart breaks hearing about the hard lives (and deaths) of so many innocent animals, there are some things you can do.
Let’s talk first about various ways a pet can experience need.
Not every pet that is roaming the streets is in need.
Dogs occasionally get loose, despite their pet parents’ best efforts. Some dogs are so frightened of storms, fireworks, or wind that they will push out screens during these stressful events to try to get away from the noise. Are they in need? Yes, temporarily. If they are friendly and have a tag with the owner’s phone number, the owner will appreciate a call so they can be reunited. If they run away from you, or seem aggressive, it’s better to call animal control.
Despite the advice of veterinarians, some people allow their cats to spend time outside—and some cats are “door dashers” that seem to get out no matter what their people try to do. If they have a collar on and seem to be well-fed and not causing harm, you probably don’t have to worry about them.
Many people don’t put collars on their cats, so it’s hard to tell if they have a home or someone caring for them or if they’re feral (i.e., they don’t have a place to call home and do not make good pets because they fear people).
Veterinarians and humane organizations are making an effort to reduce the feral cat population, and to make life better for the colonies that already exist, by spaying and neutering them and finding homes for the ones that are adoptable. If you see a cat that has an ear “tipped”—this is when a small portion of their ear is humanely removed—they may be a stray that was captured at some point in their lives to get spayed or neutered and released where they were last found. These programs are called TNR, which stands for “trap, neuter, and release/return.” Also, they may receive vaccinations for diseases like rabies at least once in their lives. If you discover a group of feral cats, look for an organization in your area that is working to address the problem.
As a pet parent, you can help by having your pet microchipped and making sure they are always wearing a collar with your phone number at the very least.
Sadly, too many pets are hit by cars every year. This is one important reason why veterinarians recommend that you keep your cat indoors and your dog on a leash when they’re outdoors. Emergency veterinary care can be expensive (hundreds to thousands of dollars).
If you hit a pet with your car or witness a pet getting hit, you should make every effort to communicate with the pet parents to try to get help for the animal right away. So look for a collar with a tag on it.
If a cat is hit by a car, petmd.com recommends first getting yourself and the pet to safety, then checking to see if the cat is breathing and still has a heartbeat. Wrap them carefully in something soft, keeping in mind that they may bite if they are in pain or distress. If you have a pet carrier, gently put them in it. And then get them to an emergency vet as soon as possible so the doc can determine whether they have any internal bleeding or other injuries that you can’t see. If your cat runs away to hide after being injured, you should call animal control to help locate them.
If a dog is hit by a car, take similar actions. Get to a safe location and beware of bites (create a muzzle with a scarf or cloth if your dog seems like they could hurt you or someone else). Small dogs can be carefully picked up, and for large dogs, you can use a blanket for a stretcher. Bring the dog to a veterinarian as soon as possible because there are lots of unseen injuries that can result from the trauma of being hit.
While every veterinary team wants to provide care for every pet that gets hit by a car, they cannot be expected to offer their services for free. If you're being a good Samaritan, let them know. They may be able to provide enough care to ease the pet's pain and distress while they're trying to find the pet's owner. If you are the pet's owner, then you may need to consider what you can afford for tests and for treatments. If the veterinary team indicates that nothing can be done to save your pet's life or that testing and treatments exceed what you can pay, you might need to consider your options, such as euthanasia as the humane choice.
It’s important to learn ways of preventing car injuries, too. Dogs should be leashed except at off-leash dog parks and trained to sit and stay so they don’t run out into the street. They shouldn’t be left unsupervised, even in a fenced-in yard. And be sure your car windows aren’t open enough for a dog to jump out. Some dogs even learn to open automatic windows, so use the child lock feature. Your pet is safer if they are in a harness or crate. And watch out when you back up in your driveway! Driveway accidents are more common than you might think.
Too many pets die every year because they are left in cars that quickly heat up to dangerous temperatures, causing heat exhaustion. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) posted a chart that shows that even on a 70-degree day, the temperature in a car rises to 113 degrees within an hour! So never leave your pets in a car alone, even on a day that seems fine.
If you notice that a pet is in a car alone and it seems like they might be in danger, you could try to locate the owner or call animal control. Some people are not aware that a car can get too hot in a short period of time. Better safe than sorry. No caring person intentionally leaves their dog too long in a car; it’s tragic when it happens.
Aside from needing forever homes, most pets living in shelters and with foster families are in good hands. The best thing you can do to help these animals is to donate to the organizations that rescue and assist pets in need. If you can, visit the shelter and ask for a tour. As you go through the tour, ask questions about their biggest needs and how they house and adopt out their pets.
They may be looking for volunteers. If you have room in your home and heart for helping more animals, you can become a foster pet parent, and if you cannot have another pet in your home, you can ask to volunteer at a shelter. Volunteering can be a satisfying way to help animals in need while not necessarily adding any new permanent family members. Often there are age restrictions, and you may also need to receive special training before you volunteer so that you and any of the pets you may encounter are safe and healthy. You will learn a lot.
If you are looking to add a furry family member, consider adopting from a shelter or humane organization. A survey done by AVMA showed that more people are adding pets to their families since the COVID-19 pandemic. It also found that 40% of those cats and 38% of dogs came from shelters. More pet stores are cooperating with rescues and shelters now, too, so there are more ways to help pets in need and not support unethical breeding operations like puppy mills.
This is a tough situation. If you suspect someone is abusing or neglecting a pet—injuring them, withholding food or water, using pets for fighting, or keeping a dog penned or chained out in the cold or heat without adequate shelter—you can report it to local law enforcement or animal control.
Unfortunately, abusers sometimes abuse pets before they abuse human household members. In Ohio and other states, veterinarians can help document health conditions that can indicate an animal that is neglected or abused. Abusers all too often use pets as leverage, sometimes making a victim stay by harming the pet, or threatening to do so. There are organizations like Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV) that are spreading the word about the ways family violence and pet abuse are linked. These organizations sometimes offer shelter to pets so victims can leave an abuser without leaving their pet in harm’s way. Other organizations train people to become veterinary social workers about navigating these tragic and complicated situations.
We believe that every family should be able to experience the emotional, physical, and mental health benefits of living with a pet. Access to veterinary care is a social justice issue. Asking someone to give up a cherished companion because they suffered an economic setback or a health issue is not right. Sadly, it happens all the time, and the stress and hardship of the pandemic have made things worse.
There is a growing movement to help low‑income people, and unhoused people, to continue to live with their pets. In 2016, The Access to Affordable Veterinary Care Coalition was formed to help the public understand the issues facing low‑income pet parents and to come up with solutions to this growing problem.
Veterinary Care Vouchers provided by One Health Organization are part of that solution. Since 2014, we’ve provided more than $220,000 in veterinary care to pet parents in northeast Ohio.
Organizations like ours that are making a difference in pets’ and people’s lives depend on donations and volunteers to fulfill our mission. Please consider getting involved where you live to help keeps pets and people together and healthy.