"Jingle mail" is the latest in foreclosure vernacular. The term describes what happens when a homeowner facing foreclosure literally gives up and throws in the keys — throws them into an envelope and mails them to the bank, that is. Jingle all the way.

But it's one thing to lock the door and walk away, leaving the bank to clean up the mess, and quite another to lock the door and walk away, leaving the dog — cat, turtle, lizard, guinea pig, horse — to fend for himself.

When times are tough for people, they're tough for pets. And times are tough.

The housing bubble has burst, and the resulting mortgage fiasco has spawned a new camp of pet owners: desperate people too worried about their own pending homelessness to plan for that of their pets.

This year, shelters in hard-hit states across the country are feeling the foreclosure pinch as they fill to capacity and beyond. An Orange County, Fla., animal shelter reports taking in 700 pets in the past four months — more than three times the number of new pets sheltered during the 2005 housing boom. Traci Chavez, director of animal services at the Escondido Humane Society in Southern California, told the North County Times that her shelter "has seen an influx of animals from families who can't make their mortgages. Forced to move quickly and with limited means, they are unable to locate housing that accommodates their pets."

Far worse, though, are the stories about bankers and real estate agents unlocking the doors to abandoned homes only to discover an even more disturbing plight: abandoned pets. Leo Nordine, a Hermosa Beach, Calif., broker who specializes in selling repossessed homes, recently told the L.A. Times that he "finds abandoned dogs at least once a month these days. Sometimes they're chained in a yard, sometimes locked in the house. They're often emaciated, if they're alive at all."

Generally speaking, people facing foreclosure are not adept planners. Which explains why many find themselves out of time and with no plan to secure their pet's well-being. Needless to say, leaving your pet alone to suffer a slow painful death by dehydration or starvation is not a good plan. To the contrary, it's both cruel and illegal.

In California, abandoning an animal is a crime punishable by up to six months in jail, a $500 fine, or both. As Stephanie Shain of the Humane Society of the United States told The Associated Press, "They may have to be euthanized at a shelter, but they'll be fed and have water and have a humane euthanization, as opposed to spending the last days of their lives eating carpet or wallboard."

Bad planners aren't necessarily bad people, but desperate people are notorious for making bad decisions. Those who leave their pets behind locked doors may be hoping the Good Samaritan effect will kick in with a neighbor or realtor. A reckless, guilt-driven gamble — completely insensitive to the suffering the animal will endure.

If you know a pet owner who is facing foreclosure, don't be shy. Ask them if they have a plan for their pets; stuff their mailbox with the addresses, phone numbers and literature of local shelters and rescue groups. This is no time for pride.

After they've moved, peek in the windows and check the yard for signs of animals. If you find an abandoned pet, notify a shelter or the authorities. Provide a small bowl of water for the animal, but don't leave him alone with it. Dehydrated animals are weak and could drown face down in a water bowl. Provide food only after consulting a vet.

If you are a pet owner facing foreclosure, don't panic. Yes, it's hard to find a rental that will allow a dog, but it's not impossible. First and foremost, don't delay. Start planning now:

Make use of available resources: Local animal rescues and shelters will likely be able to provide listings for pet-friendly housing. Visit the HSUS Web site at hsus.org or pets911.com for great tips on ways to cut costs and find housing as a pet owner.

Get it in writing: Vet records — to show how responsible you are. Letters of recommendation from prior landlords, vets, roommates or neighbors — also to show how responsible you are. Offer to pay a deposit. Offer to sign a contract agreeing to clean up after your pet, to socialize and train your pet, to keep your pet groomed and restrained, etc. — again, to show how responsible you are. Most landlords aren't dog haters; they're people who have had one too many run-ins with irresponsible dog owners. Showing them that you empathize with their past difficulties can only help your case — and that of your pooch.

And if you do convince your new landlord to let you keep your dog, get that in writing, too.

— Be honest: Don't try to sneak your dog in somewhere. You want to secure a home where he is welcome; you don't want to have to live with the worry of being evicted.

A person should exhaust every effort to take their pet with them when they move. He is part of the family and it's the responsible thing to do. But if, for some reason, you deem that impossible, you at the very least owe him the 50/50 chance he'll have at a shelter of finding a new home. Says Shain: "No one likes to think of leaving their pet at a shelter. But if you can't take him with you, it is far more humane than leaving them in an apartment or a house alone."

Alone, he doesn't have a chance.

Woof!


Dog trainer Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and host of the PBS series "WOOF! It's a Dog's Life!" Send your questions to [email protected] or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619. © Creators Syndicate Inc.