AUBURN — Living alone at Barker Mill Arms, Helen Allen had no company in her small apartment. No one to spend time with.

Last fall, Precious, a fluffy little black cat, walked into her life. Precious helped with the loneliness and depression, lifting the spirits of the woman who jokingly gives her age as “too old.” But having a pet created another problem for Allen: Cat food cost $15 or $20 bag.

“Sometimes I have it,” Allen said. “Sometimes I don’t.” 

SeniorsPlus had the solution.

For the past five months, the Lewiston nonprofit has been delivering pet food alongside Meals on Wheels — dubbing the program Pets on Wheels. On one recent Tuesday, driver Nick Dionne brought Allen a hot fish-and-vegetables dinner and Precious 10 pounds of kitty kibble.  

“She knows what’s hers,” Dionne said as Precious rubbed her head against the two plastic bags filled with 9Lives.

SeniorsPlus began offering Pets on Wheels in December thanks to a $2,500 grant from the Banfield Charitable Trust, an Oregon charity dedicated to animal causes. Most other Meals on Wheels programs in Maine have a pet food component; SeniorsPlus had been wanting to do it for a while. 

“Knowing that if we’re able to help people out with pet food, they would be able to take their money and spend it on other things that are more important to them — their own food or medication,” said Nutrition Manager David Moyer, “because as we know, the seniors with pets, they’re going to make sure their pets eat first.”

Like Meals on Wheels, Pets on Wheels helps people who are homebound, cannot cook or get help cooking and are either disabled or 60 or older. 

Of the 450 Meals on Wheels recipients throughout Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, 55 have signed up to receive pet food for 30 dogs and 76 cats. 

“Somebody asked about a bird. I don’t have anything for birds yet,” Dionne said.

Recipients get a pet food delivery about once a month, the amount based on the size and number of animals. Two medium-sized cats, for example, get about 20 pounds of kibble for the month. Dionne also throws in other pet items, including bags of donated cat litter, when he has them.

The food is either Blue Seal — dry food bought in bulk using the grant money — or donated food. SeniorsPlus doesn’t officially provide special kinds of pet food or accommodate special diets, but Dionne tries to set aside 9lives for Precious because it’s the only food she’ll eat.

“She’s the only one I’ve found so far who’s picky with her cat food,” Dionne said. “Everybody else so far has been very forgiving.”

Although SeniorsPlus wants Pets on Wheels to be a permanent part of its Meals on Wheels, the initial grant is not enough to run it even for a full year. The program relies on cash and pet food donations from individuals and groups to supplement.

For some recipients, the pet food has been a literal lifesaver.

One man had given away his dog because he couldn’t afford to feed him, only to find out the dog’s new owners weren’t caring for him. The man took his dog back, but his financial situation hadn’t changed. When Dionne visited, he found a too-skinny pit bull and an upset owner. 

“I brought him a whole big box, there must have been 25 pounds (of dog food),” Dionne said. “I gave it all to him and the look on his face was amazed. He was just so happy he was going to get some help.”

It’s been a common reaction.

“There’s somebody with two cats, he never has any money, so whenever we deliver Meals on Wheels to him he’s so appreciative,” Dionne said. “When I brought him the big box of cat food he was so ecstatic. He had tears in his eyes.” 

A dog lover himself, Dionne believes pets are vital for company and love. It’s that philosophy he delivers on.

“Companions to me are very important,” he said.

At Allen’s apartment, Dionne crouched down and petted Precious as she checked out her new food supply and hopped in the emptied delivery box. After a few minutes, the cat jumped onto a chair and curled up.    

“Now look at her,” Allen said. “She’s happy as a lark now.”

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

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