When a sudden illness nearly cost Kimberly Carrier her career and her home, she clung to her two closest companions: her beloved dogs, Rosie and Stella.

As Carrier confronted the possibility of living in her car, she knew wherever she ended up, her dogs would be coming with her.

Fortunately her health improved, but that brush with economic disaster changed how she saw other pet owners struggling to make ends meet.

“I learned how important my relationship with my dogs was for me,” said Carrier of Minneapolis. “Before in my life, I would think, ‘What is a homeless person doing with a dog? That is an awful thing to do to a dog.’ ”

“After falling from my high horse,” and seeing firsthand how a canine companion improved the life of a homeless neighbor, Carrier started People and Pets Together in 2009. The mission of the nonprofit food bank and veterinary assistance program is to prevent the surrender of beloved pets due to economic hardship.

The charity collects pet food donations which it delivers to 10 Twin Cities food shelves serving people.

Animal lovers get it, Carrier said. “You have to feed the whole family, not just the human family.”

The organization also runs a pet food bank in an old record store in south Minneapolis for residents of the Powderhorn and Phillips neighborhoods (peopleandpets together.org).

Demand for their services has exploded — paralleling rising demand at food shelves serving people across Minnesota.

People and Pets Together will dish out 80,000 pounds of food for cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, fish and other pets this year — double the amount distributed in 2017.

“The needs are growing exponentially and we are just plugging along,” Carrier said.

Candace McCown, 64, relies on People and Pets Together to help feed her three cats, Cloud, Hazel and Blackie, whom she calls, “A piece of my heart. They are my family.”

McCown is on Social Security and works part-time as a Target cashier, but still comes up short some months.

“These people are wonderful,” McCown said. “They just care about you and your pets.”

Donations welcome

People and Pets Together relies largely on donations, with food collection boxes at pet stores and veterinary clinics. They strike deals to pick up overstocks from pet food manufacturers and animal charities. They use cash donations to buy some food.

People and Pets Together also partners with vet clinics to offer some financial assistance for medical care.

The nonprofit runs on a lean annual budget of about $50,000, with just two part-time employees and a cadre of volunteers including Carrier, who refuses to take pay. She now works full time as a volunteer coordinator at the Minnesota Arboretum.

Adorable anecdotes and snapshots of cats and dogs can often steal the spotlight, but People and Pets Together staff say they aim to help people by helping their pets.

Providing food for pets means their owners have a little bit more money to pay bills or feed themselves, Carrier said. It costs between $435 and $485 a year to feed a dog, according to a Money magazine calculation. Throw in the cost of veterinary care, grooming, gear, toys and treats, dog ownership tops out at $1,200 a year.

“We often hear from our clients [that] they would rather go hungry than see their pets go without food,” said Nick Atwood, program director for People and Pets Together. “Their pets are so important to them. We are really helping the entire family when we help people feed their pets.”

Carrier said she has also come to understand the social, therapeutic and safety benefits of pets for people struggling with health problems, instability and even homelessness.

“When you are homeless, your options for making friends are quite limited,” Carrier said. “A dog is a security feature so you don’t get robbed, beaten up or raped.”

The comfort and stress release pets provide are needed the most during those trying times, Atwood said. A slew of studies find that pet ownership can reduce stress and improve cardiovascular health. Pets may even lengthen one’s life, according to a Swedish study published in “Nature.”

Harvard Medical School issued a special report called “Get Healthy, Get a Dog.”

People and Pets Together clients range from families facing temporary hardships, such as a job loss, to fixed-income seniors to the homeless.

“You never know when you will be in a position of need,” Atwood said. “Dogs and cats can live 10 to 15 years. A financial crisis can be one job loss or sickness away. For those families, we provide a really good service. To say they have to give their pet up, I think that’s really unfair.”

Annie Mae, a petite terrier, is a reason for owner Joseph Menkevich to get out of bed in the morning. Food donations from People and Pets Together keep Annie healthy and fed.

“I live with physical and mental health issues,” said Menkevich, 54. “There have been times when I was depressed. Before having Annie, I would isolate and shut everything down. She needs to go out, so now I can’t do that. It’s the benefit of having her.

“I know I am very blessed. Annie is one of those blessings.”