A whirlwind of devastation, paperwork, and hurriedly packed bags, foreclosure is a life-changing event for families; unfortunately, it could be life-ending for their pets. When residents vacate, pets may be left to fend for themselves, either on the streets or in the empty homes. “People who have lost their jobs often can no longer afford their pets,” says Marie Belew Wheatley, president and CEO of the Denver-based American Humane Association (AHA). “In the worst cases, people are forced out of their homes due to foreclosure and are leaving their animals behind with hopes that they will fare OK on their own.”

The national pets-per-household average and Colorado’s current foreclosure rate suggest that tens of thousands of Colorado animals could be at risk of becoming foreclosure casualties. Many of these abandoned animals will starve to death. Even when animal control locates the orphaned pets and takes them to shelters, this can create more victims of the trickle-down recession, because shelters are having trouble financing the onslaught of newly homeless animals. Too frequently, euthanizing healthy animals is the only option. The Metro Denver Shelter Alliance estimates that more than 61,000 pets entered Denver-area animal shelters in 2007—and that was before the economic crunch. Just 72 percent were adopted or returned to their original owners, leaving almost 17,000 former pets with a grim fate. With more folks in the past year unable to absorb the extra expense of their pets, the situation has worsened. “We have definitely seen an increase in owner surrender,” says Kate Lindenbaum, shelter manager at the Colorado Humane Society SPCA. The Dumb Friends League, the largest animal welfare organization in the region, accepts up to 76 new animals a day.

Last year, after the AHA noticed the rise in shelter drop-offs because of foreclosures, it developed the Foreclosure Grants Program to aid shelters with basic housing, feeding, and medical costs. To date, the program has generated more than $38,000 in “foreclosure pets grants” for organizations such as the Lakewood-based Misha May Foundation, a nonprofit that rehabilitates abandoned, ill, and neglected dogs before placing them in permanent homes. “When you let the community know that you need a little help, people come forward,” Belew Wheatley says. “It doesn’t take a lot to save an animal.”