SACRAMENTO, Calif. - It's a pet owner's nightmare.
Your dog or cat is sick or injured and you don't have the money to pay a veterinarian for treatment. Euthanasia or giving away your best friend become the only options.
The recession and unemployment have made that scenario a reality for more pet owners, animal-care experts say.
Most veterinarians require clients to pay in full. Groups that provide financial aid have limited resources and often restrict their funds by breeds, diseases or other criteria.
"There's a huge need, and that need has increased dramatically," said Nicole Forsyth, president of United Animal Nations, a Sacramento-based nonprofit group that gives grants to low-income pet owners.
UAN is one of the few organizations pet owners can go to for assistance in crises. It limits aid to animals with life-threatening conditions and a good chance of survival if treated.
From 2007 to 2009, applications for the group's LifeLine grants, which range from $100 to $500, jumped 73 percent, Forsyth said. Last year, UAN received nearly 2,500 pleas for help from across the nation and awarded 508 grants totaling $83,000.
Many pet owners who call are unemployed. They've depleted their savings and maxed out their credit cards, Forsyth said. "There's just a different desperation in the people we talk to now."
Rick Woodbridge of Sacramento was among those desperate callers. He received a $200 grant in July that helped save his young Labrador retriever, Bella.
Woodbridge, who makes $9 an hour at a feed store, came home one day and found the dog's intestines protruding from its anus, the result of a hereditary condition. He rushed Bella to a local vet who wanted $700 up-front to perform a life-saving procedure. Woodbridge couldn't pay and had to take the dog home.
He called veterinary clinics and found one that was willing to start treatment with a partial payment.
He also contacted UAN, which had a donation box at the store where he worked. UAN agreed to provide $200 and helped Woodbridge connect with other funding sources. Labrador Lifeline, a group that helps owners of the breed, kicked in $500, and a friend loaned him $200 for what became a $1,300 operation.
Woodbridge, playing with Bella in a park last week, said he was grateful for so much aid. "Without it, she wouldn't be here today," he said, patting Bella's head.
Patricia Porras of Citrus Heights, Calif., hasn't been so lucky. Disabled from a car crash and unemployed, she has two border collies that need medical attention: one for gum disease; the other for weight loss and weakness.
She hasn't been able to find help.
Porras acquired both dogs as puppies when she worked and had resources. She vows to keep them with her, even as she faces the prospect of losing her home next month. She fears that a shelter or rescue group would euthanize the older dog, 13, and would reject the younger one because of behavior issues.
"These are my babies, my only companions, my friends," she said, crying.
One potential benefit of being on the street, she said, is that she can take the dogs to the Mercer Veterinary Clinic for the Homeless, a program at the University of California, Davis, that serves clients once a month at Loaves & Fishes, a private charity in Sacramento.
Low-cost vaccination clinics, spay/neuter programs and pet-food banks are regularly offered by a number of regional organizations. But no-cost or low-cost vet care is much harder to find.
The UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine has no general programs to serve low-income clients, though the Mercer Clinic will usually help those in desperate need, a spokeswoman said.
UAN maintains a comprehensive list of groups that provide financial assistance on its website, www.uan.org. The group accepts donations via its website or mailed to United Animal Nations, P.O. Box 188890, Sacramento, CA 95818. Call UAN at 916-429-2457.