"The number of strays is up a lot, mostly dogs - the cats we're seeing right now are mainly wild ones that have been caught," says DVM Dianne Johnson.
In the past, strays have commonly been larger dogs that may escape a chain. Now, Johnson says, small pets seem to be on the streets, including poodles and chihuahuas that may have limited capacity to survive alone.
Johnson fears that for the first time, the economy may be causing the uptick in strays - people losing their homes and moving into apartments that don't take pets, or people simply reaching the point where they can no longer afford to feed their animals, and turning them out as a last resort.
"It's getting harder to find places that will take unwanted dogs," she says. While the TLC Shelter in Newell handles many displaced animals as a private facility, it is of late often full.
She feels a county shelter facility is needed.
Strays from the city get brought into the animal hospital, which does its best to get them adopted, but facilities are limited. "We really hate to have to euthanize any animal, but we also have to have spaces for the animals that come to us to board," Johnson says.
Many of the strays that come into the animal hospital are fairly healthy, but some are in heartbreaking condition - "skin and bones," she adds.
"We've had poodles come in so matted you couldn't tell what they were, covered with sores under the hair. We had one that lost two toes - that's pretty serious neglect."
Neglect cases are not rare, unfortunately. "There are people here who seem to just get tired of their pets. They put them outside to live in a kennel or a garage and throw some food out there once in a while. They don't spend any time with them, and that makes for a situation that is pretty sad."
In other cases, owners seem simply too distracted to care for their pets. "They are so careless - they put the dog outside on its own to go to the bathroom, and go back inside and get caught up in whatever they are doing, and when they come back hours later they are surprised the dog isn't still standing at the doorstep. That's one reason we have dogs running loose," Johnson says.
In Storm Lake, the Police Department handles reports of neglect or animal-related problems. "They do an excellent job, I'm sure it is not their favorite thing to go chase stray dogs and cats and haul stray animals around in their patrol cars, but they are pretty caring people," the veterinarian explained. "The best thing to do if you see animals in what you think is a neglect situation is to report it to police and let them handle it."
In this summer's heat especially, it became critical to ensure that outside dogs had enough water and a place to get into shade. "I'm sure some of them didn't make it," Johnson says.
It is also important for people to get proper care when their animals need it, and to get the necessary vaccinations. "We've already has at least one case of parvo in the last couple of weeks. It is important to get puppies in for their vaccinations, starting at 6-8 weeks old."
Of course, in perspective it is important to note that the majority of people in the community take careful care of their pets at all times. "It's the bad case that you tend to remember," Johnson notes.
Having seen countless animals as a professional, she never gets used to the emotion that comes from loving pets that are abused, neglected or left to survive on the streets. Johnson says she tries to stay out of the kennel where the strays are kept, and leave that part of the hospital's work to the staff.
"The minute I go in there, I get too attached," she says.