The sign said 3 p.m., but Carol Froman wheeled her shopping cart into the Walgreens parking lot early.
She came for a bargain, but not for the sales. She has no money for frills. She pushed a cart full of wriggling fur with one hand, clutched a Hillsborough County rabies tag notice in the other and waited for the promised van.
For Froman, 60, the sign announcing an ad hoc clinic for reduced-price pet vaccines last month was a godsend. Sugar the Chihuahua, 12, and Bootsie the Shih Tzu, 5, needed their annual shots. On a fixed income of Social Security disability payments, Froman skimps on groceries and gave up on visits to a full-service veterinarian a few years ago.
Without no-frills mobile clinics such as Pet Care A Van, she says, she wouldn't still have Sugar and Bootsie.
"I'd do what many people are having to do: turn them in to the pound because it's too costly to take them to the vet."
Even discount prices can be hard for many pet owners these days, she says.
"One of my Christmas gifts from my daughter was paying for (one) dog to get shots," she says. "If my daughter hadn't paid for it, I would have had to be late on the electric bill."
Financial struggles she can face, she says, but not the loss of her constant companions.
"A lot of people say, 'If you can't afford them, why don't you give them up?' But that's like giving away your child."
Froman is hardly alone. In separate one-hour clinics last month behind Walgreens stores in Valrico and Riverview, a total of 99 animals received vaccines at discount prices, about double the number for the same time last year, says Jackie Smith, spokeswoman for the Jacksonville-based Pet Care A Van.
Clients say they pay about half the price quoted at their regular veterinarian's office, and sometimes less. Jerry Deniz of Tampa says his animal hospital quoted $200 for the package of services he wanted for his 3-year-old Maltese, Boo. He got the same package for $51 at Pet Care A Van.
The mobile vaccine clinics typically don't offer full-scale veterinary examinations. Samantha Deckert, a Pet Care A Van technician, says she advises clients to have their pets examined by a vet to screen for health problems, but she knows many people can't afford it.
"A lot of people that have a good heart and do rescue work would like to get the exam, but they can't do anything besides vaccines," she says.
Another discount service that's been around for more than 10 years, Pet Vet Vaccination Clinics, is also getting a bigger turnout when it sets up at Central Florida feed stores.
Matthew Smith, practice manager, says the economic downturn has even caused employed, middle-income people to come to the clinics.
They save on vaccines, he says, so they can afford to pay for treatment when their pets get sick.
Nonprofit agencies also say demand for services has skyrocketed as people grapple with layoffs and rising prices.
Even the cost of a pet license doubled in Hillsborough County this year, going from $10 to $20 for neutered animals.
The increase was necessary to avoid layoffs and keep the department's animal cruelty investigation program intact, says county Animal Services spokeswoman Marti Ryan.
Although other shelters say they're seeing more people trying to surrender their pets, Ryan says the county-operated shelter actually got about 4,000 fewer animals in 2008-09 than the year before. But that's not just pet cats and dogs. The 28,440 check-ins included strays and nuisance wildlife.
Budget cuts led the shelter to close on Mondays, which may have affected the number of animals impounded, Ryan says. Stepped-up efforts to get people to spay and neuter their pets and stricter requirements for proving ownership of animals to be surrendered could also play a role.
People who turn their pets over to the county are asked why on a form, and the reason most often checked is cost, she says.
In Tampa, the nonprofit Humane Society of Tampa Bay runs a shelter that in 2008 took in 5,000 dogs and cats, says Sherry Silk, the organization's executive director. For 2009, she says, the figure will top 7,000.
Shelter directors in the Tampa Bay area say layoffs and home foreclosures force people to move in with family members or downsize to an apartment, where pets often aren't welcome. Relocating for job-related reasons sometimes means Fido must be left behind.
Nora Hawkins, acting executive director of the SPCA Tampa Bay in Largo, says she has seen a surge of pet surrenders because the animals developed health problems their owners can't afford to treat.
And the Humane Society is seeing more people bringing in seriously sick or injured animals for euthanasia because their veterinarian quoted a price of $100 or more for the service. The society charges $50, but won't turn away an animal in need if a qualified person is available to perform the service.
"We don't want the animals to suffer," she says.
The Humane Society offers several programs to try to keep pets in their homes. In July, it started a wellness clinic on Saturdays. Pet owners can bring their cats or dogs for checkups, vaccines and heartworm tests and prevention medicine at reduced prices.
The society hopes to start offering the clinic on Fridays and expand it to Sundays later in the year.
"It's not that we want to compete with veterinarians," Silk says. "I believe we're reaching a whole segment of the population that can't afford veterinary care."
The society will hold the third in a series of free vaccine clinics from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Wimauma Civic Center in South Hillsborough. Previous free clinics in Sulphur Springs and Riverview each supplied 800 to 1,000 vaccines to pets of Hillsborough County residents.
Pet owners who can't afford the rising cost of feeding their companions can take advantage of a dog and cat food giveaway program the society started almost two years ago. Since then, more than 110,000 pounds of pet food have been distributed to 2,000-plus families, according to the Humane Society's Web site.
"It's been a huge program for us," Silk says. "It's no-questions-asked, just how many animals they have. We don't ask anyone to show us their pay stub."
The program depends on donations, however. "We do run out of food quite often," Silk says.
Other shelter directors say they also distribute surplus food donations to people in need, but the Humane Society is the only organization that has a formal program for doing so.
People who provide services to pet owners say they hear heart-wrenching stories of divorce, job loss and eviction that threaten to leave even well-loved animals homeless. Offering assistance that keeps pets with their owners can be rewarding.
Alfonso Gonzalez, a veterinarian who travels across the state working for Pet Care A Van, says he usually has only a few minutes to look over paperwork and administer vaccines to each furry patient, so he rarely knows the back story. He just knows people are grateful.
"I get this message every day, several times a day: 'Thank you for doing this.'"
HELP FOR PET OWNERS
The Humane Society of Tampa Bay and the Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center offer free vaccinations for dogs and cats from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Wimauma Civic Center, 5705 Hillsborough St., Wimauma.
Pet food, blankets, bowls and other donated items will be distributed free as long as they last.
The clinic is open to Hillsborough County residents only. Dogs must be on a leash, and cats must be in carriers. Animals must be 8 weeks old to receive distemper vaccines and at least 3 months old to receive rabies shots.
For information on this and other Humane Society programs, call (813) 367-2078 or visit www.humanesocietytampa.org.
Animal Coalition of Tampa (ACT), 1719 W. Lemon St., Tampa, offers a low-cost shot clinic and spay-neuter, and a traveling "neuter scooter." Call (813) 250-3900 or visit www.actampa.org for price lists and schedules.
Pet Care A Van traveling clinic offers vaccines, heartworm prevention and flea control products at discount prices in the Tampa Bay area and beyond. Call (904) 471-3925 or visit www.petcareavan.com for price lists and a schedule of locations.
Pet Vet Vaccination Clinics traveling clinic offers vaccines, heartworm testing and prevention, feline leukemia testing and flea control products at discount prices in the Tampa Bay area and beyond. Call 1-888-673-8838 or visit www.888petvet.com for price lists and a schedule of locations.
WHAT THEY NEED
Local shelters welcome these items as donations:
Science Diet dog, cat, puppy and kitten food*
Clean towels, blankets and linens
Dog brushes and flea combs
Pet shampoo (not flea shampoo)
Stainless steel food bowls
Laundry detergent and bleach
Clay-based cat litter
Leashes and collars
Crates and carriers
*Other food brands accepted and distributed to pet owners in need.
Some area shelters
Humane Society of Tampa Bay
3607 N. Armenia Ave.
Tampa, FL 22607
Hillsborough County Animal Services
440 N. Falkenburg Road
Tampa, FL 33619
SPCA Tampa Bay
9099 130th Ave. N.
Largo, FL 33773
1528 27th St. SE
Ruskin, FL 33570