The Shared Experiences of Pet Food Insecurity

Two-thirds of the people Long Island Cares serves have pets at home.

Even when you look at the national numbers on food insecurity, it’s hard to ignore that most people suffering have pets suffering alongside them.

So let’s look at pet food insecurity outside Long Island’s scope. What are some root causes of pet food insecurity in other parts of the U.S.?

According to a research paper titled “Coping with Pet Food Insecurity in Low-Income Communities” by researcher Arnold Arluke in 2021, the root causes come in many forms.

The report followed 40 food-insecure families in North Carolina, and the results were fascinating and all too similar to what we see here at Long Island Cares every day.

According to the report, “Approximately 55% [of participants] often worried about running out of pet food, while 30% sometimes worried. And approximately 38% often actually ran out of food, while 38% sometimes ran out.”

For most pet owners, the thought of being unable to feed their furry friends is a nightmare. For many food-insecure families, however, it’s a sad reality.

So, what are some of the causes of pet food insecurity?

First, the North Carolina study found that, like humans, pets suffer from living in food deserts. The U.S.D.A. defines food deserts as “areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.” This includes access to supermarkets, restaurants, food pantries, and, in this case, pet food stores.

What is particularly interesting about this study is that while some participants had access to stores such as Walmart and 7-11, they didn’t want to compromise their pet’s health by purchasing low-quality food items.

A study conducted in Cambridge, Massachusetts, noted similar concerns: pet food costs in their area rose by 15% in 2021. Numbers we are all too familiar with on Long Island.

Even if no other options were available, some people share their food with their pets and do not risk getting sick from low-quality food. Unfortunately, that still causes health concerns for the animals in need.

If an animal has a special diet, it’s even more challenging to find the healthy, nutritious food they need at a gas station market or another food store in a food desert.

“What’s the big deal?” you may think, “Why can’t they simply drive to the next store and buy food there? There are so many places on Long Island that sell pet food!”

Well, if you have a car of your own, that may be no big deal, but if you have to rely on other forms of transportation, the task becomes infinitely more complex.

One participant in the study reported taking upwards of three hours of bus rides to get groceries for themselves and their pet. They relied on a single-hand cart to gather a month’s worth of food.

Lack of transportation is also one of the leading root causes of hunger here on Long Island.

When you don’t have transportation, your time becomes extremely precious. The North Carolina study found that many participants opted to toss a small bag of dog or cat food in with their groceries because a second trip would cost “2 more hours of travel and $8 of bus fare.” That’s time and money that’s hard to make up when battling food insecurity.

Not to mention that almost none of the study participants noted buying in bulk because they either couldn’t afford to or simply couldn’t carry the heavy bag of pet food.

“But what about food stamps? Surely, they must make a difference!” I hear some of you say.

Well, dear reader, unfortunately, “The Food and Nutrition Act of 2009 does not consider pet food as eligible food for home consumption.”

It sounds like an injustice because it is.

This financial burden is another piece of the puzzle that spreads across the entire nation. PetsMart recently conducted a study of its own to look into it. The results showed that “nearly half (49%) reported that they meticulously calculate their pets’ expenses to maintain a budget.” And “nearly one-third (29%) said they worry about being able to feed their pets due to financial stress.”

Over 50% reported prioritizing their pet’s health over their own, increasing the cost of living.

A good friend once told me, “Hunger is a hustle.” Because not only must you get creative to feed your family, but also because seemingly endless hurdles prevent you from recovering.

Throw a pet into the mix, and it compounds the problem.

So, people turn to food pantries like Long Island Cares, which provides pet food through Baxter’s Pet Pantry.

Participants in the study who were able to visit their local food pantries for pet food reported that the visits “saved them from $40 to $100 a month,” on average, allowing them to use the money for bills and restoring at least some peace of mind. Similar numbers to what we see here on Long Island.

Among other coping strategies outlined in the paper, many carried negative results for pets and owners. Many of these statistics mirror the experiences of our own neighbors in need on Long Island.

68% of North Carolina participants admitted stretching food by feeding pets less, with some even instituting “skip days” for animals.

70% noted that they “give them whatever I’m eating,” especially near the end of the month when rent and other bills come into play.

(This one is much more common than people think, especially with Long Island Cares clients before finding Baxter’s.)

73% occasionally sacrificed their meals to feed their pet instead. Another experience shared by Long Islanders in need.

Interestingly, the percentages mentioned here are similar to studies even outside of the U.S., including one conducted by A.F.B. Pet Club, an organization dedicated to helping pets in Canada, which says that “65% of respondents said our Animal Food Bank has prevented them from having to choose between feeding themselves or their pets, and a staggering 55% of respondents said our services have prevented them from having to surrender their pets.”

Harry Chapin once said: “There’s enough food to feed everyone on this planet twice over; why, why, why are people going hungry?”

Harry should have tacked on pets to his famous quote because these numbers are simply unacceptable to us at Long Island Cares.

Whenever anyone visits Long Island Cares, as part of their intake process, they are asked if they have pets at home. If the answer is yes (no matter what sort of pet), we will help out.

Have you got a dog? Take some dry food, maybe a new leash, and sometimes a doggy bed.

Bird in the house? Here’s some birdseed and toys for them to play with.

Feeding and providing for pets alongside the humans who care for them is the only way to reduce these alarming numbers.

Everyone deserves to own a pet. They bring so many beautiful things into our lives. But they can’t make the changes needed themselves. So, it’s up to us.

The locations mentioned in this particular study may vary, but the experiences of those suffering from pet food insecurity are eerily similar.

While two-thirds of our visitors have pets at home, we want to ensure that NONE of them ever must choose between food for the family or the dogs.

Read the full paper here if you’re interested in learning more about how folks cope with pet food insecurity:

Arluke, Arnold. (2021). Coping with Pet Food Insecurity in Low-Income Communities. Anthrozoös. 34. 1-20. 10.1080/08927936.2021.1898215.

Additional Sources:


No Kid Should Go to Bed Hungry