(PHOTO: REUTERS/Natalie Behring)
A New York-based nonprofit organization has created a new assistance program that could benefit pet owners who already receive help from state and local Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
More than 50 million Americans are enrolled in the SNAP program to help pay for food and groceries, but these benefits exclude the purchase of products for 'man's best friend.'
The national unemployment rate last month was just under 8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, and those who are unemployed are struggling to keep the lights on, much less buy food for the family's pets.
Marc Okon, founder and executive director of the "Pet Food Stamps" program, created the organization with the mission to provide relief for those who are contemplating the surrender of their pets to a local shelter, simply because they cannot afford the cost of pet food and supplies.
"Animals shouldn't have to suffer because people are having difficulties," Okon said during a recent interview with Fox News' Steve Doocy.
"We do know that there has been an increase in demand at pet food banks," said Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor at the ASPCA. "Cost of care is one reason for relinquishment, though the critical issue during the economic downturn has been problems with living arrangements. People have been forced to move and are frequently in a position where a new landlord will not allow them to keep a pet."
Maura Davies, vice president of the SPCA of Texas, which is an animal welfare agency that operates two shelters and an animal cruelty investigations team in the North Texas area, said that although the Pet Food Stamps program should benefit low-income families, the effort to help pet owners cover the cost of pet supplies isn't new.
"The concept of providing pet food to people who cannot afford to purchase it is wonderful, though not a new idea," Davies said. "There are pet food assistance programs across the country that are provided by local groups – some discounted, some free."
To qualify for the Pet Food Stamps program, applicants must be United States residents who live at or below the poverty level. Applicants must also submit an online application and supporting documentation, and then be prepared to wait, because the process can take several weeks.
Once approved, a pet owner is eligible to receive free monthly home deliveries of pet food and supplies from Pet Foods Direct for up-to six months. Recipients only receive the supplies they need for their cat, dog, rabbit or guinea pig, and they do not receive cash or a debit card.
Davies also said that although there are several "people" foods that household pets can safely eat, they do have different health requirements than their owners.
Zawistowski agreed and added that: "[Human food] is usually too high in carbohydrates and salt and low in protein. Besides, pet food is generally less expensive than human food. There are also many foods that are safe for human consumption that can be toxic to our pets."
When an owner makes the difficult decision to surrender their pet, Davies says expense is often the reason.
"One of the reasons people have given to the SPCA of Texas for surrendering their pets is that they cannot afford the cost of care for their pets, but not specifically because they cannot afford to pay for pet food."
The Pet Food Stamps organization, which is funded by donations from corporations and individuals and not the federal government, doesn't currently provide assistance to help cover the cost of veterinary care. But according to the Pet Food Stamps website, they are planning to expand the program to offer free or heavily discounted veterinary care by the end of the year.