Learning From Our Clients

August 17th, 2020 | Posted by Chelsea Cappellano in Uncategorized
By: Suzanne D’Alonzo, Community Outreach Programs Manager for Humane Pennsylvania

Our Community Outreach Team meets many pet owners facing complex issues, and Spike’s Pet Pantry lets us repeatedly connect with clients.  Before social distancing protocols were put into place, we knew a fair amount about the pets, situations, and families of our pet pantry clients.  We’ll get back to a time when our client connections will again be more interactional and conversational, less transactional.  And thinking about the conversations that currently have to be skipped as we limit client interactions got me thinking about conversations I’ve had.  And I realize I’ve learned a lot from those I serve.

Spike’s Pet Pantry clients are motivated to find ways to meet their pets’ needs.  While every client and their situation is unique, similar threads crop up in the stories:  pets are considered family and the fear of not being able to provide weighs on pet owners.  No matter the situation that led them to our program, our pet pantry clients have a variety of ways to stretch their limited resources.  They do their best and that keeps their beloved pets in their homes.  Frankly, it’s impressive.

It’s also universal.  A colleague is publishing his multi-city study of how pet owners cope with pet food insecurity.  The lessons I find here in Berks and Lancaster counties match those of pet owners around the country.  Effort and ingenuity keep animals in their homes and out of the shelter system; that’s a win for everyone.  Knowing details about how owners provide for their pets means our program has important facts.  Having these details means the opportunity to improve our program so it’s the best fit for pet owners in need.

Owners tell us about how they forgo other purchases so they can provide for their pet.  Sometimes it’s the stuff that makes life easier- pre-made meals from the grocery or a restaurant after a tough week, a favorite treat, or a little something new.  Sometimes it’s a tougher decision, with pet owners juggling which bills get addressed right away or deciding which prescriptions can wait.  It’s usually about making things work on a fixed income, even creating a timeline for purchases of all the things that are needed- the family’s food, school supplies, gas for the car, pet food, etc.

We hear about future plans for purchases of pet-related items- which stores have what on sale, what coupons can be used, the best places for online pet-supply shopping, etc.  That might leave room for vet care or grooming supplies when they’re needed.  Often it comes down to strategy: supplement pet food with what comes from Spike’s Pet Pantry, purchasing only a small amount if the month’s allotment isn’t enough.  Or consolidate pet supply purchases, getting only a larger, cost-effective bag for when more food is needed.  Switch to a cheaper brand when possible.  Save some of the brand or flavor a pet really likes in case it’s needed to convince pets to eat a flavor they don’t like, so no food goes to waste.  Many creative ideas are shared with us and we see the amazing budgeting people use for their pets!

Clients will stretch dog food by adding cooked rice, sometimes vegetables, to their dogs’ meals.  They’ll convince finicky cats to eat with a few choice bits of their own dinner meat added in.  And we’ve learned about how pets other types of pets’ meals get managed when things are tight (did you know the best place to get a bale of hay for a rabbit?  I didn’t either until I got the scoop).  We also know that pet owners will skip meals themselves or share whatever they have with their pets if they aren’t able to secure an ample amount of pet food.

I’ve heard clients trading babysitting favors with relatives for a bag of dog food.  I’ve known owners to jointly purchase a big bag of pet food and split it, benefiting from the savings of bulk buying. Others borrow money or directly ask for pet food from friends or relatives.  I know folks who “share custody” or have sent pets to temporarily stay with an ex or a relative so pets’ needs get met.  It all works: the pets get fed and are still with the people who love them.

We even hear about some of the choices that, initially, seem to make less sense but that are logical in the long run.  Some of our clients may have long walks to get food home, or may be facing an eviction or upcoming move, or may have trouble lifting or storing larger amounts.  These are times we’ve come to realize when pet owners may need to take smaller quantities than they’d like to, or, when purchasing additional pet food, have to purchase smaller quantities at higher prices given their circumstances.  I recall one pet owner who knew she would likely be living in her car between rentals and did not have the space for a large amount of pet food.  Another had to get a ride from a friend while the friend made work deliveries.  Only so much would fit in the car at the same time as the other delivery items.  Yet another was a senior citizen taking care of her older sister.  Her elderly two dogs and cat were her world.  She was only able to lift about 5 pounds at a time, and she planned carefully as to how she could manage to get, then unload, a larger amount.

Since Spike’s Pet Pantry permits someone other than the client to make the monthly food pick up it’s pretty common that neighbors come together, sharing a ride.  That saves on gas, letting limited funds be wisely used.  There are a number of clients who pick up for relatives- one vehicle that will make the circuit between granny’s, an uncle’s, and home.  This works to get pet food to those who don’t have reliable transportation, who don’t have the time to make it to our pantry, or who physically cannot get out to pick up supplies.

I’ve been inspired listening to clients share what works for them.  I hear different perspectives, and one is not more “correct” than another.  Some clients who own both a dog and a cat will skip getting food for one type pet if they still have a supply at home, in hopes this helps everyone in the program get what they need.  I find this seems common with pet owners of a single cat or a petite dog.  Other clients go home with with the maximum we are able to provide, even if they still have some food, in hopes they might skip coming the following month if they have enough.

Pet owners facing pet food insecurity are doing a good job with what they have.  As I continue to meet clients- and get to know them, their families, their pets, and what’s happening in their lives- I really appreciate what they tell us.  Sharing your life and its challenges is uncomfortable, which makes the information all the more valuable.  Understanding how solutions to challenges can be cobbled together holds lessons.  It’s that information that help us modify and improve current programs.  It also lets us consider future projects or programming that could further assist wonderful pet owners who are finding ways to keep their pets in their homes!

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