NEW PORT RICHEY — Nora Malone was laid off in January from her job as a nurse, and money had gotten tight.
So Malone stopped by the SPCA Suncoast on Thursday with a free voucher that allowed her to pick up cat food for her four kittens and two cats. The New Port Richey woman walked out a few minutes later with one bag of Chicken Formula and another of Complete Care Natural Choice for her brood.
"This is a great help," said Malone, 49. "It's been a struggle."
The SPCA Suncoast works with the Volunteer Way food bank to help feed families who have fallen on tough times. The Volunteer Way provides meals and hands out vouchers for free pet food at the SPCA's Animeal pantry.
As the economy has tanked, the number of families cashing in those vouchers has skyrocketed.
Last year the nonprofit animal shelter on Congress Street gave away 384 batches of pet food.
So far this year, that number is up to 1,043.
When people stop by to use the voucher, which has no expiration date, they're given about three weeks worth of pet food that comes from donations.
If the SPCA has any to give.
"There's been a few weeks in the past few months where we can't provide them food," said Gail Armstrong, executive director of the SPCA. "People get to the point where even if we give them food, that's still not enough."
Which is why the SPCA has also seen a jump in the number of pet owners surrendering their animals to the shelter because they can no longer keep them. In the first nine months of this year, SPCA has accepted 376 surrendered pets — already surpassing last year's total of 331.
"They feel like their back is against a wall," Armstrong said of pet owners. "There's no hope to keep the animal with them."
At a maximum, the shelter can hold up to 110 animals, Armstrong said, but said there are days when they turn away dozens of animals because they simply don't have the space.
"We can make appointments, so that as soon as animals get adopted, we can take in more," she said. "You get to the point where there's absolutely no space to hold them."
One cause for the increase in animal surrenders is economic constraints that have forced lifestyle changes among families, Armstrong said.
"A lot of people are consolidating, have been foreclosed on or are moving out of state," she said. "If you had three separate households with pets, like a son and a grandmother, and everyone moving together and all have pets, they can't afford to keep pets."
But the influx of animals has brought an uptick in pet adoptions: From January through September of last year, there were 799 adoptions. During the same period this year, there were 888.
The euthanasia rate has averaged around 8.5 percent of the animals coming into the shelter, Armstrong said.
While the demands on the shelter have increased, donations have gone down because of the economy.
"We're seeing a drop in monetary donations," Armstrong said, "but we're seeing more pets coming in."
Armstrong said her organization hopes more donations trickle in to help purchase more food so people won't have to give up their pets.
"When you're in a stressful situation, you want your pets because of the comfort they can bring you," Armstrong said. "When you're stressed about the economy and you have to take that heart-wrenching step of giving your pet away, it's sad."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4609.
By the numbers
331 Pets surrendered to the SPCA Suncoast shelter in 2008.
376 Pets surrendered to the shelter from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30.
384 Animeal vouchers used in 2008.
1,043 Animeal vouchers used from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30.
Source: SPCA Suncoast