Imagine you are down on your luck, and you have a pet. It’s a heartbreaking situation: You barely have enough money to feed yourself, much less your companion animal. Do you go without food? Do you give up your beloved pet?

In an effort to help countless people who are now finding themselves in just this sort of situation, a no-kill shelter in Idaho, the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley, has partnered with The Hunger Coalition to help feed the pets of those in need. The program, Paws for Hunger, provides pet food for those who might otherwise have a hard time affording it.

“These are pets that already have loving homes,” said the animal shelter’s director, Dr. Jo-Anne Dixon. “When a family needs help from the food bank, it’s usually a temporary and very stressful situation. Pets are very much a part of the family support system, particularly for the children. We want to make sure that this part of the support system isn’t broken.” About 30 families receive pet food each month, with about 10 also receiving food for themselves. More than 4,000 pounds of pet food were distributed by the animal shelter in 2009. In 2010, that number has nearly doubled.

This program has a benefit beyond letting people keep their pets during difficult times. It also helps needy people get the help they require. “It seems to be easier for people to ask for help for their pets than for themselves,” said Jeanne Liston, executive director of The Hunger Coalition. “We’re finding that it is an incredibly innovative way to reach people who may be reluctant to approach us.” According to Liston, she had never heard of a program such as Paws for Hunger before being approached by Dr. Dixon last year.

Partnerships like these, between human services and animal services, have been cropping up around the U.S. and Canada. There are also national efforts to help pet owners in need. The PETCO Foundation has expanded its “We Are Family Too” program to include a Food Bank Collection Program at PETCO stores nationwide. This program was created to support food banks’ inventory of pet food to help people in financial crisis feed their pets.

To promote the program, the PETCO Foundation has partnered with Best Friends Animal Society to host America’s first National Pet Food Drive from Nov. 5 through Nov. 14. On the weekends of the drive, more than 300 Best Friends volunteers will be working at 198 PETCO stores all over the country to explain the goals of the food drive and help collect donated pet food to be distributed by local food banks.

“I live in Brevard County, Florida, and we don’t have a pet food pantry set up in the county to help pet owners who have lost their jobs or homes,” said Best Friends volunteer, Judy Marshall. “For the past few years, many of these people have had to make the heartbreaking decision to relinquish their pets to the local shelter simply because they couldn’t afford to feed their pets.”

Jackie Roach, a volunteer from Omaha, Nebraska, added, “Families shouldn’t have to choose between feeding their children and feeding their pets. If we can help keep just one pet in his home, if we can prevent just one person from having to give up his furry family member, then I can feel really good about how I’ve chosen to spend my time.”

With more efforts such as these, hopefully we can create an America where neither people nor pets go hungry.

Photo Credit: Elena Chochkova