HANCOCK COUNTY — Peggy McConnell was moved to tears when she opened her Meals on Wheels delivery a couple months ago.
It wasn’t the sight of the food that made her emotional, but the flyer attached on top, announcing that Meals on Wheels of Hancock County would start offering financial assistance for pet food, veterinary care and pet boarding.
McConnell’s two chihuahuas, Chi-Chi and Judy, and her cat, Ki-Ki, are like children to her, having been in her life for over a decade.
When her oldest dog developed a painful tooth abscess — making it nearly impossible to eat the food she could afford to buy her on a fixed income — the faithful pet owner didn’t know what she would do.
Then the pet care flyer was delivered to her door, attached to the meal she received that day.
“I was so delighted, I couldn’t believe it,” said the 79-year-old widow, who lives in Greenfield.
She quickly signed up, and Chi-Chi got a checkup and the $400 tooth extraction McConnell had been unable to afford. Her cat also was treated for a bladder infection that caused it to urinate in the house, nearly forcing her to find him a new home.
“God bless their hearts,” McConnell said of the directors and volunteers for the local Meals on Wheels organization. “They got my pets what they needed, and everything is wonderful now.”
The pet care program — called “Ani-meals” — is funded by a grant from Meals on Wheels America, which has promoted its own pet care program since 2007.
Lynda Kosh, executive director for Meals on Wheels of Hancock County, said the local nonprofit received enough grant dollars in 2020 and 2021 to carry the program through the end of this year, but monetary support is always welcome.
Ani-meals provides much more than just pet food. It also provides funding for veterinary care, annual exams, vaccinations and boarding in the event a client is hospitalized.
The program was created to support the far-reaching health benefits seniors get from caring for a pet, said Kosh.
“There are a number of reasons why seniors should either have or adopt a pet,” she said. “It promotes calmness and companionship, and provides a sense of purpose in their life. It gives them some sense of security and helps them to stay social by going out for walks, taking them to the groomer or the vet, or going to the pet store.”
Kosh said studies have shown that when a pet needs food or medical attention, fixed-income seniors will sometimes put their pets’ needs before their own.
“Research we conducted last year…revealed that nearly one in three pet-owning Meals on Wheels clients reported foregoing personal care – such as medical care, paying bills, covering utilities, etc. – in order to provide for their pet, and more than one in five reported going without food to feed their pets,” said Morgan Hultquist, manager of strategy and impact for Meals on Wheels America.
Roughly 30 percent of the county’s 100-plus Meals on Wheels clients are pet owners, said Kosh.
After the first grant dollars for Ani-meals were secured in 2020, local Meals on Wheels leaders surveyed clients about their top pet care concerns.
“We thought the biggest need would be pet food, but they were more concerned about the care of their pet if something happened to them, like if they had to go into the hospital or could no longer (financially) take care of their pet. That was their number one concern,” she said.
Meals on Wheels of Hancock County partners with Noah’s Brandywine Animal Hospital in Greenfield to get their clients’ pets the care they need.
One such client, Connie Jones, is easily moved to tears when she thinks of how the program is impacting her beloved 13-year-old Shih Tzu, Heidi, who has recently developed some growths on her coat and has run out of a couple medications.
The nine-pound ball of fluff has been Jones’ constant companion ever since she was a puppy.
“It makes me emotional because she’s my baby. I’ve had her since she was three months old,” said Jones, 76, of Greenfield, who has struggled to take Heidi for annual check-ups due to her limited income and her own health issues.
“When I heard about the program, it was a tremendous weight off my chest,” she said. “It’s such a relief to see that she’s going to get her needs met because she’s like my child. I want her to be healthy and be with me as long as she can.”
Elizabeth Sleeser, board chairman and Ani-meals committee chair for Meals on Wheels of Hancock County, said only about 10 clients are currently taking part in the pet care program, but she hopes more will follow.
She recalled one client whose puppy was infected with parvovirus, which often leads to death without emergency care.
“We were so grateful to Noah’s (veterinary services) for bending over backwards to make sure our client and her puppy got the care they needed,” said Sleeser.
By supporting not just reactionary but preventative veterinary care, like routine health checkups and vaccinations, Meals on Wheels can help ensure that clients’ pets stay healthy for years to come, she said.
That’s exactly what McConnell is hoping for.
“The program has been a godsend to me,” said McConnell, who was anxiously waiting to be discharged from a local rehab center this week so she could reunite with her beloved pets after recovering from COVID.
“I can’t believe all the wonderful things that these people (at Meals on Wheels) do. I praise God for them,” she said.
Ani-meals — a pet care program for Meals on Wheels of Hancock County clients — was made possible by grant dollars from Meals on Wheels America, which first launched a national client pet care initiative in 2007.
“Since the beginning of our partnership with PetSmart Charities, this dedicated pet grant program has distributed more than $1.3 million in funding and pet food donations…across the nation,” said Morgan Hultquist, manager of strategy and impact for Meals on Wheels America.
The national program, called Meals on Wheels Loves Pets, funded the distribution of 675,800 pounds of food to 13,300 seniors and their 21,900 pets in 2020 alone.
That year, Meals on Wheels America kicked off a three-year, $3 million-plus partnership with PetSmart Charities to expand its ability to support Meals on Wheels clients through pet programming.
“Since then, we have awarded 257 grants to 179 local Meals on Wheels programs in 42 states to bolster and expand their pet programming in a variety of ways,” Hultquist said.
Meals on Wheels America also offers training resources to grantees to help develop partnerships in their own communities, which can drive more donations and discounts for pet food and supplies and facilitate access to veterinary care, grooming and dog walking, among other things.
Hultquist says the program is a worthwhile investment.
“Supporting pet assistance services to help keep home-bound seniors together with their pets is part of our long-term efforts to provide social connection and combat social isolation and loneliness among older Americans,” she said. “In the coming weeks, we’ll be distributing our next round of Meals on Wheels Loves Pets grants to bolster the development, growth and sustainability of local programs…and help expand access to care.”