Reycie Sevilla was prepared to max out her credit cards to keep her three dogs — Bacon, Turkey and Chewy — fed earlier this year.
The Toronto pet owner saw her savings dwindle this summer as her work cleaning commercial buildings dried up during the first wave of COVID-19.
"It's bittersweet. You see [the dogs] all the time, but you're thinking the next day, 'Oh, my gracious, the container of the puppy food is getting less and less,'" Sevilla told CBC News.
"I never expected to be in this position."
So when Sevilla heard that Toronto Animal Services (TAS) had started a program to help pet owners directly affected by COVID-19 care for their animals, she quickly applied and was approved a few days later.
"I got the email gift card and it's like, 'Oh, my gracious, unbelievable,'" she said. "I think 10 minutes after, when I catch my breath, I ran to the pet store."
Sevilla is one of more than 1,200 pet owners who have received a pet store e-gift card through the temporary city program since April. The program is being funded entirely through grants and donations and aims to give pet owners enough funds to cover six weeks of pet supplies.
Based on statistics from the city it looks like the program is working.
Overall, the city has been able to cut its animal shelter population nearly in half over the course of COVID-19.
Last year, people gave up 2,572 pets to city shelters through the end of November. In the same timeframe this year, that number is 1,435 — that's a 44 per cent drop in the number of dogs, cats and other domestic animals given up to TAS.
"For us, it's so rewarding," said Esther Attard, acting director of TAS and its chief veterinarian.
"We can actually do something to keep people together with their pets, and keep them less isolated."
Program helps connect pet owners with other services
Those efforts don't just include handing out gift cards, Attard said.
Calls and emails from pet owners applying for the program have also provided staff opportunities to connect them with resources the city —and other services — offer to get pets spayed and neutered and deal with behavioural issues.
"We know we need to be more in the community and this has really just pushed us out there and given us the time to do that," Attard told CBC News. "It's really made a difference."
For her part, Sevilla benefited both from the program's gift cards and city services.
After her Shih Tzu-Jack Russell mix Turkey had a litter of three puppies this fall, the city helped her get her two male dogs Bacon and Chewy neutered.
"I'm glad there's a service like this," said Sevilla. "I hope I will not be in this situation for a very long time because I want to give back as well."
The pandemic pet program has funding through April 2021, but Attard says it could be around longer.
"We'll try to keep going as long as we need to," she said.
"As long as there's a need for it we will seek out other places we can get grants."