Life

Inside the Toronto food bank for dogs, cats, rodents, snakes—even a hedgehog 

As pet food prices rise, the Toronto Humane Society’s pet food bank program is seeing a surge in demand
Brennan Doherty
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Every day, as many as 60 pet owners file into the Toronto Humane Society’s headquarters, just east of the city’s downtown core, seeking food for their beloved animals. The answer lies behind a squad of secretaries at the building’s front desk, where the dusty scent of kibble in sealed plastic serving bags is almost overpowering.  

This isn’t your typical food bank. Anyone unable to feed their dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and other furry (or scaly) friends can leave with a bag of kibble, canned food or whatever else they need, including toys. No judgment, no questions asked. 

The Humane Society launched its pet food bank eight years ago after seeing patrons struggle to feed their animals for a variety of reasons: the high cost of housing in Toronto, layoffs, other financial issues. And the situation hasn’t improved since then—one expert recently estimated pet food prices shot up eight per cent in the last year

That means a can of Purina cat food that used to cost $1.84 is now $2. Add to that the high cost of private vet care, and all of the other expenses of living in Toronto amid a cost-of-living crisis, and it’s no surprise why so many pet owners are using the food bank. According to Dillon Dodson, senior manager of social work at the Toronto Humane Society, the pet food bank was originally created to provide short-term offerings during unexpected crises. “We now have families repeatedly coming back, which really speaks to the complex challenges that our users are experiencing—that a ‘short-term’ crisis is not as short-term as it once was.”

Dodson says pet owners will often forgo food or other essentials to care for their pets if they can’t afford to feed them. Others have no choice but to relinquish their pets. Her mission, and that of the Humane Society’s pet food bank, is to help pet owners hang onto their animals. We spoke to her about the types of pets—and owners—they’ve helped:

You’re a social worker by training, but you’ve also done a lot of work with animals—like equine therapy. Did you ever think, even five years ago, you’d be working at a pet food bank?

I worked in human shelters for approximately 15 years, and half of those years involved working on gender-based violence, particularly survivors of human trafficking. 

Over the years, it became clear not only from my own lived experience, but also through supporting clients, that animals offer an amzing opportunity to provide comfort, care, and love for individuals experiencing hardship. Animals, the environment, and humans are all interconnected and interdependent. Helping one is helping them all. 

What does the situation look like for pet owners at this time? And what sort of demand have you started to see since inflation began? 

In Canada, we’re experiencing the highest level of food bank use in history. For some of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The problems it exacerbated are not over. With inflation and the rising cost of pet care, people are struggling to make ends meet. 

There are some people unable to afford veterinary care today, and without it, animals are going to be sicker. They’ll do whatever it takes to feed their animals, but perhaps a vet visit will get pushed as other demands present themselves—like rent and groceries, unexpected unemployment, unexpected evictions and other crises. 

By this point in 2022, we’d provided approximately 57,000 pounds of pet food. So far in 2023, we’ve provided 112,000 pounds. Need is growing exponentially, and we are seeing record-breaking demand. 

Who’s donating to the food bank right now?

Thankfully, Toronto is a very generous community. Probably five or 10 times a year, a child does a fundraiser in their classroom or for their own birthday parties, or they’ll hold a lemonade stand. They’ll come in with a whole box of supplies and accessories: toys, leashes, harnesses. We also have a variety of partnerships with pet food distributors who are willing to contribute to the Humane Society. But we see these donations as a community offering.

Why do you think people are so willing to donate at a time when they probably don’t have a lot for themselves?

People are very altruistic. People who care about animals also care about the people that are looking after them. That, really, is our goal—to be able to meet the needs of both ends of the leash. 

I have this mental image of people coming in for the pet food bank program with their pets. Is that the case?

Sometimes! It’s a real blessing when they do, because then you get to meet their animal. Pets act as a social lubricant, and this allows us to engage and get to know people in a way that we might not otherwise. It goes to the idea that pets are family. We’re honoured to get to meet a pet. We are meeting somebody’s family member.

What’s the most unusual pet you’ve ever met through the program?

We had a hedgehog come in last week. We’ve had ferrets come into our shelter, but I don’t recall if they’ve entered the food bank. We’ve had snakes, birds, sugar gliders—

Sugar gliders? And you were able to provide food for them? 

That’s right. They have a complex diet. The makeup of their nutritional intake is very specific. 

What kinds of decisions have you seen people make in order to keep feeding their pets?

We have people who will take transit for hours and hours across the city just to visit our pet food bank. Every day, our staff overhear families who cannot feed themselves and their children while also feeding their pets. So they arrive at our door asking for help rehoming their animal—and that’s a decision families should not have to make. 

Most of our families will absolutely feed their animals before they feed themselves, and they are open and honest about that. Last week, we had somebody come in whose partner had passed away, and they were no longer able to cover the rent for their home. They were experiencing homelessness with their indoor cat. For an indoor cat, being outside is incredibly stressful. The owner’s main priority was to ensure their animal had its medical needs met. 

During the pandemic, pet surrenders reportedly went through the roof. I think there’s a perception that someone who’s had to surrender their pet is someone who took on more than they could chew. Is that your experience? 

No. Our experience is that times are very difficult right now. Folks across the socio-economic spectrum are experiencing challenges and having to make difficult decisions. Many of the families accessing our pet food program have had their animals for several years and are experiencing new challenges. There isn’t one face to it. 

For example, there was a gentleman who needed a hip replacement, and those non-critical surgeries weren’t proceeding during the pandemic. He had a large-breed dog—a really active dog—and his mobility continued to deteriorate as he was waiting for this surgery. He’d also lost his partner due to COVID and was also quite socially isolated. Thankfully he was able to get the procedure done. However, those surgeries require extensive rehabilitation, and there was no one to look after his animal. He was able to enrol the dog into the Humane Society’s Urgent Care program. They were beautifully reunited after a couple months when he had recovered. 

We’ve also had people arrive at our door who’ve been able to get out of abusive households and cannot get into a shelter that will allow them to keep their animals. They’ve been able to secure shelter for their kids and for themselves, but they need to relinquish their animal to keep everybody else safe.

I understand working at a shelter, either for humans or animals, can be very emotionally taxing. What’s it like for you to work here? On the one hand, it’s necessary, but it’s also depressing that people need a pet food bank. 

I guess it can seem that way. But we’re asking ourselves what we can do and what role we can play in providing valuable assistance to our community. We know that families will often seek support for their animals before they will seek support for themselves, and so having animals come in allows me the opportunity to assess a family’s needs. We see this, really, as an intervention point—to have wider conversations with our families and connect them to human service providers.

How long do you think you can keep the pet food bank program going? Do you think you can sustain it for years into the future? 

We see the pet food bank as keeping families together, and so it is absolutely pivotal that we can continue to provide this need. It is a safety net for pet families. So we always need more. We need families to continue staying interested and invested. We need partners. We need our community to continue to recognize that this is a core need during this difficult time. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.