Rocky’s owners could no longer afford to keep him. Photo: Steven Jones
Rocky has big brown eyes, a winning smile and a hopeful nose for treats. A 10-year-old black labrador with enormously expressive eyebrows, he’s an immediate charmer. And 10 days ago, thanks to the cost-of-living crisis, he lost his home.
“Rocky had been with his previous family throughout his life and was a very, very much-loved family pet. But like many of the population just now, his owners were struggling with the cost of living and the future being a bit more uncertain financially,” says Sandra Downie, manager of the Dogs Trust rehoming centre in Glasgow.
No longer able to offer the life they wanted to give him, Rocky’s family had to make the awful decision to give him up, so he’s found himself in the care of Downie and her team. As the UK’s largest dog welfare charity, Dogs Trust normally cares for around 14,000 dogs across its network of 21 rehoming centres in the UK and one in Dublin.
“It was just horrific for them,” Downie says. “Because they loved him so much, they realised the best they could do for Rocky was to ask us to find another home for him. A home that could give him everything in life that they were going to have to miss out on. So, it was an incredibly selfless act that brought Rocky into our care.”
It’s often said that pets become part of the family. You’ve probably heard the truism so many times you’ve forgotten what it really means. The emotional weight it carries. If that’s the case for you, stop right now and look your dog (or cat, or bird, or rabbit) in the eye. Then imagine having to say goodbye.
A high price
After the last few years of pandemic fear, lockdowns, bereavements and increasing economic hardship, we’ve relied on our fluffy pals to get us through. In 2020 and 2021, demand for puppies went through the roof. Before the pandemic, the average price of a dog was £876, according to the online marketplace Pets4Homes. By March 2021, that had risen to £2,237. As workers have gone back to offices and life has normalised, so too have pet prices. By April this year, the average cost to buy a dog was down to £1,329.
That’s still more than five times the cost of adopting a puppy from Dogs Trust, and more than six times the cost of taking in an adult dog like Rocky. Every dog rehomed by the charity is vaccinated, microchipped and neutered, and goes home with a new lead and collar, starter pack of food, and four weeks’ free insurance. All of that will set you back just £205 for an adult dog, or £260 for a puppy (the extra £55 covers their dog school fee).
Yet as energy, food and housing costs rocket for UK households, the expense of looking after even the most loved animal is just too much for some. In normal times, veterinary charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) estimates that the lifetime cost of looking after a dog will be between £5,000 and £12,200. We are not in normal times. Pet food costs have risen by record amounts in the last few months, with some brands up by more than a third. More than 10 per cent of dog owners have been forced into debt to care for their furry friends, according to a recent survey. Meanwhile, many people have had to take on extra hours or additional jobs to stay afloat – and therefore cannot be around for their pets the way they were before.
All this pressure means Rocky is just one of a wave of animals who’ve ended up in shelters as their owners can no longer care for them. In recent months, Dogs Trust has received record numbers of enquiries from desperate owners who feel they’ve run out of options. Between August and October 2022, they received 14,128 hand-over enquiries. They now expect to hit 50,000 enquiries in total this year, up almost 50 per cent on 2021. Meanwhile, the number of moggies on waiting lists to be accepted into Cats Protection shelters has grown by 20 per cent compared to this time last year. When the charity surveyed 2,000 owners across the UK, they discovered 29 per cent were struggling to financially support their cat.
“No one wants to have to give up a beloved pet, but the cost-of-living crisis is having a disastrous effect on cats and their owners,” says Peter Shergold, Cats Protection’s head of field operations. “Many are facing extreme choices such as rationing food or giving up their much-loved cat entirely. This winter could see an unprecedented number of cats and kittens being given up to charities or worse still, abandoned in the cold and left to fend for themselves.”
The horrible irony is that those who are most vulnerable to the increased cost of living are also some of those who rely on their dog or cat the most. Big Issue vendors often speak of the vital connection they have with their pets. A dog by your side can be a friend, a reason to get up in the morning, a source of unconditional love.
That’s why PDSA services providing free and low-cost treatment to pets in need are so important. Back in March, their annual survey found 30 per cent of UK pet owners were already worried about how they’d pay for vet bills if their pet gets sick or is injured.
“As people increasingly find themselves struggling to meet the soaring price of fuel, food and utility bills, the situation is only going to get worse,” PDSA vet Lynne James adds. “While these concerns and difficulties are shared by many, they are felt even more keenly by people on benefits and low wages, or those receiving pensions, who rely on the support of PDSA. Over a quarter of people we help are retired, and nearly a third are disabled, have long-term illnesses or are carers.”
While their services are under increasing pressure, James urges anyone struggling to cover the cost of veterinary treatments to find out if they are entitled to PDSA help by looking at the eligibility checker on their website.
The waiting game
On the wall of Dogs Trust Glasgow, Downie shows me a whiteboard covered in names. These are all the “boys and girls” who are currently in their care, as well as those who are waiting for a place. “On Monday,” she says, “I looked at our stats and we had 68 dogs in our care, and 82 waiting to come in. So we always have more dogs that come in than we can ever get out.”
Once an owner has called Dogs Trust for help, it can be one or two weeks before the team are able to accept the pet into their care. While they’ll always do what they can in urgent situations, Downie says the waiting period can help some people come to terms with their loss. “Some owners want a week or two,” she explains, “because it means they can spend some TLC time with the dog and get their head around it. They can let family members say goodbye. So we honour what they need.”
Just as pressures on household finances are forcing more people to give up their pets, the same concerns are discouraging potential owners from adopting a new member into their family. Among non-dog owners, 61 per cent said the rising cost of living would prevent them adopting or buying a dog, in Dogs Trust’s latest survey.
It’s a situation that’s worrying for sweet and bouncy lurcher cross Tigger. After three years, he’s one of the Glasgow branch’s longest residents. “We all love him,” says rehabilitation trainer Louise Duffy, as she plays with Tigger in the centre’s outdoor activity area (think the agility courses at Crufts). “He’s smart, he’s got bags of personality. He makes me laugh.” Tigger came to the Dogs Trust when he was still young, so he’s pretty much grown up in the shelter. He can sometimes struggle to settle, but Duffy is sure there’s someone out there whose life would be brightened by this stripy wee pup. She’s hopeful that special person will see this magazine and finally offer Tigger the life he deserves. “He just loves people, and he needs a stable home,” she says.
Back in the centre’s welcome hall there’s a pilot project to help owners stay with their dogs. On a table in the corner, they’ve set up a pet foodbank. There are now more than 2,500 foodbanks across the UK, offering a vital service for people living on the edge. Now, in animal shelters across the country, dozens of equivalent services are springing up to help feed pets.
“We’re definitely finding people are struggling with the price of food for themselves, the price of dog food, vet bills, and just incurring daily costs,” says Downie. “We’ve had cases where people are paying for their dog to eat over themselves. And that can’t be managed long term.”
As well as hopefully stopping some families having to go through the heartbreak of giving up their dog, Downie hopes the foodbank will help relieve pressure on their services.
“The cost-of-living crisis is going to get harder as the winter months come,” she explains. “We are already seeing a decline in people coming forward to offer dogs homes, which is quite worrying. The reverse is true about dogs coming into our care: we’re seeing higher numbers than ever.
“That’s quite worrying for the charity, because at a time when we really need resources to be at their best, we might be struggling.
“That’s why, if we can keep dogs and owners together through our foodbank and dog school, we absolutely will do.”
A Rocky comeback
A week after The Big Issue’s first visit to Dogs Trust Glasgow, we check back in on the team and their canine charges. The centre is still packed, the staff and volunteers working their socks off to keep all the dogs fed, watered, exercised, trained and cared for. But there has been at least some good news. Jumping in the back of a bright yellow Dogs Trust branded car, we take a short drive and find ourselves on a quiet street lined with family homes. It’s here that black lab Rocky has found a second chance at life.
When we knock on the door, he and his new owner, Amanda Beacom, come out to greet us. Tail wagging in delight, Rocky’s keen to show off one of his new toys, a chewable gingerbread man with ropes for arms. He’s got his own bed in the heart of the living room and a garden to play in out the back. Best of all, he has his own people to take care of him.
“He’s fit right in,” says Beacom, between cuddles. “I just love him. We know that he’s older, so we might get six months or we might get six years, but he’s worth it. I mean, look at his face! We just want to make him happy.” Beacom’s husband and two sons, aged eight and 11, adore him too. Rocky’s been here less than a week, but the kids already enjoy lying on the floor watching football while snuggled up to their new friend.
“I can’t imagine what it must have been like to give him up,” says Beacom, “but we’re so happy to have him here.”
Until recently, the Beacom family had two dogs. Every year, they would set up Christmas stockings for them on either side of the TV in the living room. One of Amanda’s favourite moments each festive season was watching them tear into their presents.
“Look,” she says, flicking through her phone to find a video of a keen pup enjoying his gifts. After losing them, they debated whether they should get a new dog, but Beacom says she couldn’t stand the quietness in the house during the day when the boys were out at work and school. It’s much better now Rocky’s here to sit by her side as she works from home. “And I couldn’t go into Christmas without a dog to open presents,” she adds, ruffling Rocky’s cheek fur. Against the odds, this old boy’s landed on his paws.
Not all the dogs are so lucky. Tigger is still looking for his forever home. And across the UK, waiting lists for shelters keep growing.
Here’s how you can help
Thousands of dogs and cats are looking for new forever homes. If you have space in your life for a new friend, contact your local rehoming centre.
Dogs Trust and Cats Protection are both appealing for foster carers to help look after animals who have lost their homes. Taking care of the pet for short periods, they help pets get a second chance at life.
Cash donations help rehoming centres feed and look after the thousands of dogs and cats in their care.
If you are struggling to look after your pet, contact your local rehoming centre to ask about support they can offer. PDSA may be able to help with veterinary care. If it is no longer possible for you to keep your animal, Dogs Trust or Cats Protection will help them find a new home. Neither charity ever put a healthy animal to sleep.
Life on the streets makes it difficult to access vet care. In 17 towns and cities in the UK, StreetVet offers free care to homeless people’s animals. You can back them by donating or checking out your local team’s Amazon Wishlist.
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.