CLEARWATER — Even when Deborah Pitman was down to 11 cents in the bank, letting her two dogs go hungry was never an option.
They were there when Pitman, 67, spent all of her savings to care for her sister dying of cancer. Miss Monkee, a Yorkie mix, and Fozzie, a bichon frise, became her only family left when her brother died suddenly this year.
Miss Monkee even woke her from a nap, she said, when the water she forgot boiling on the stove for tea started a small fire.
So when she couldn't afford dog food, Pitman began sharing her own dinner of canned tuna and instant mashed potatoes from the dollar store and scooped it into their bowls.
Only when things got desperate did Pitman finally call the local crisis hotline, where she eventually was referred to the Humane Society of Pinellas' pet food pantry program she says saved her life.
"I have a lot of pride," Pitman said. "I've been all around the world. I met two presidents. I've had a hell of a life, and I'm not used to asking for help. It's embarrassing as hell."
Like the Meals on Wheels program that delivers food to homes of shut-ins and the elderly, the Humane Society's Senior Pet Connection brings pet food to needy owners throughout the county who otherwise wouldn't be able to feed their animals.
The program runs on donations and serves 156 people with 319 animals, although several dozen families are on a waiting list until more pet food can be collected, said Lucy Monette, humane education and outreach coordinator for the Humane Society of Pinellas.
Volunteer drivers run the routes in their own vehicles, and each family is visited once a month to replenish their supply. The program serves about the same number of cats and dogs but has also fed birds, rats and fish, Monette said.
Some of the families are disabled and can't leave the house to buy food. Others are elderly with no money to feed their pets.
Gary Houston, 67, was told about the program by the Meals on Wheels volunteer who delivers him frozen food every two weeks. Houston said he and his wife, Marilyn, would always put the needs of Eddie, a miniature Schnauzer, and Trouble, a Shih Tzu, above their own.
"We were taking food out of our mouths to feed the dogs," he said.
But income from their Social Security and disability benefits could stretch only so far.
Along with delivering food and toys, Senior Pet Connection also provides monthly flea medicine and vet care to the clients, sometimes picking up the animals from home and dropping them back after treatment.
When Pitman's bichon, Fozzie, was attacked by a possum in her back yard, the Humane Society of Pinellas treated the bite on his leg at no cost.
Unable to pay hundreds of dollars to a private veterinarian, Pitman bought a $1 pack of socks to wrap his leg in the meantime until the Humane Society called to say they had grant money available to take Fozzie to the clinic.
"It's the nicest thing that's ever happened in my life," Pitman said.
After Monette dropped off a bag of dog food, treats and flea medicine on Thursday, Pitman showed Monette around her house, pointing out old photos in her bedroom and telling stories about the collage of hotel keys she has framed in her living room.
Monette listened and asked questions, petting Fozzie and Miss Monkee as they stood at her feet.
"If it wasn't for them, I don't know what I'd do," Pitman said.
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.