PALM BAY, Fla. – We love our pets like we love our children. But between trips to the vet and buying food, caring for them is expensive. Millions of animals are surrendered to shelters every year because their owners can't afford to look after them anymore.
But now, help is here thanks to a first-of-its-kind program called Pet Food Stamps.
The assistance program started in February, and Heather and Cliff Heath, a Brevard County couple, were one of the first families to sign up.
"I've been out of work three years, my husband has been out of work two years," says Heather Heath. "Money is tight. We used to buy them really good food, and we've had to cut back."
In fact, the Heaths admit that they've gone without food themselves, just so they can afford meals for their dogs.
That painful reality is seen in homes across America. The latest numbers show that seven million pets are given up by their owners every year because it's too expensive to care for them. Even worse -- about four million of those animals are put down.
That's why Pet Food Stamps has become a saving grace for families like the Heaths.
"I thought, wow, this could be fabulous, this would help out a lot," says Heather Heath.
Pet Food Stamps is a non-profit organization that ships giant bags of high-quality food to your home every month at not charge.
WKIMG-TV spoke to the program's founder, Marc Okon, about how it can help families.
"Children are traumatized when they have to lose their pet because they can't afford to feed them," says Okon. "So it's preventing children from being traumatized, it's preventing families from breaking up."
You can get food for dogs, cats, even small animals and birds. To be eligible, you already have to be on some kind of assistance program, like welfare, food stamps, or Social Security.
So, what if you're not, but you still need help?
"When you are in an economic crisis, the last thing you want to do is give up your best friend," says Diane Andrson with the SPCA in Orlando. She has some advice to save money.
First, switch to store brand food, which costs less. Also, cut back on the amount of food you're feeding your animal.
"Most people overfeed their pets, most pets are actually overweight," says Andrson.
Andrson has heard of Pet Food Stamps, and thinks it could be a huge lifeline for struggling families, like the Heaths.
"There's not that worry anymore, now I can focus on, OK, are my bills going to get paid?" says Heather Heath.
"It's nice knowing that they're going to be taken care of," says Cliff Heath
Right now, about 140,000 people are enrolled in Pet Food Stamps. The goal is to help one million owners by the end of next year.
This program relies heavily on donations. So, if you want to help out, learn more, or even apply, visit the Pet Food Stamps website.
If you're approved for the program, you'll be shipped a six-month supply of pet food -- one bag every month. After the six months are up, you can re-apply for another term.