(MNN.com) -- Our unemployment rate may be dipping, but many U.S. families still struggle to make ends meet. "Doing more with less" requires tough decisions about household expenses, and many pet owners face the possibility of losing their pets.
Fortunately, there is a network of resources available to keep pets and their people together. Here are a few options if you need help -- or an opportunity to help if you can lend a hand.
When Ann King created Save Our Pets food bank in 2008, she had a hard time convincing friends of the need for pet food banks. Four years later, you probably know at least one friend or family member who has faced economic challenges, and King has seen her idea spread across the country.
"More and more, we still have people coming who are living in their cars with their pets," King says. "They've been evicted; rather than giving pets up they're staying in their cars with them."
Check SaveOurPets.com to find a pet food bank in your area. Some traditional food banks also are beginning to carry pet food, or provide resources in your area. It also helps to call local breed rescue groups for recommendations.
Want to help? King offers tips on starting a pet food bank in your community. She notes that securing a steady supply of pet food can be the biggest challenge. You also will need plenty of storage space for that donated kibble.
It's a great project for schools to tackle. Also, consider donating to animal shelters, breed-specific rescues or food banks. A little smart coupon action also helps.
Sites like www.mypetsavings.com frequently post news about discounted pet products. Stephanie Nelson (aka "The Coupon Mom") recommends that shoppers contact their favorite companies and ask for coupons. When you buy one and get one free, set aside the second item for donation.
"We keep a charity box in our garage," she says. "Give them the free bag. You don't have to be extreme to give to charity."
Routine vaccinations prevent pets from contracting deadly -- and very expensive -- diseases. Shop around for low-cost vaccination clinics. Petco's "Luv My Pets" program offers low-cost vaccinations in 20 states.
Many county animal control offices also offer deep discounts to residents. As temperatures begin to rise, check your local paper for event listings that include low-cost shot clinics. Also, be honest with your vet about the need to cut costs.
Based on your pet's age and lifestyle, you may be able to avoid some vaccinations or try the three-year rabies vaccine.
Want to help? Spread the word. Use community newsletters or Facebook pages to keep neighbors informed about upcoming shot clinics or nearby facilities that offer deep discounts.
Kittens and puppies cost money. Forget trying to sell them for a profit. North Shore Animal League notes that more than 70,000 kittens and puppies are born each day -- so the market is flooded.
Unaltered pets also face behavioral and health issues. Males are prone to roam in search of a mate, while females run the risk of developing breast cancer or uterine infections, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA.org).
Check with you local animal control about low-cost spay/neuter services. In a partnership with PetSmart Charities, the ASPCA lists facilities on its website. North Shore also supports a spay/neuter program with 1,000 locations nationwide. Register online at SpayUSA.org for a referral or call 1-800-248-7729.
Want to help? Download educational flyers from North Shore's SpayUSA website to share with family, friends and neighbors. Ask your vet to consider joining the growing network of low-cost spay/neuter facilities.
Or, consider volunteering with a nonprofit organization in your community. Most nonprofits will tell you that elbow grease is a treasured commodity.
"We need people power," says Ralph Hawthorne, manager of the Pets for Life program in Atlanta. "A lot of people, armed with information, will have their pets spayed or neutered. But the No. 1 problem is transportation."
Established in 2011 by the Humane Society of the United States, Pets For Life offers food, obedience training, vaccination clinics and vouchers for spay/neuter services -- with the goal of keeping people and pets together.
The program targets underserved communities in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. Hawthorne says that the unemployment rate in some of the communities is double the nation's unemployment rate.
"We are helping people in a time of need," Hawthorne says. "It's easy to say, 'If they can't afford the dog then they shouldn't have the dog. But the pet is part of the family."
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