There's been a barrage of bad news on the economic front this week, with inflation growing at the fastest rate in 17 years, average weekly wages posting the the biggest year-over-year decline since November 1990, and the number of people receiving unemployment benefits at the highest level in almost five years.

Not surprisingly, the downward slide is taking a toll on pets, with shelters from Massachusetts to California reporting a surge in animals given up by families no longer able to afford their care.

Animal shelters across the South are also feeling the effects of the struggling economy, with the SPCA in Wake County, N.C. reporting what it calls a "dramatic increase" in surrendered animals over the past two months. In an effort to stem the tide of homeless pets, the organization announced that it's opening a pet food pantry that will provide a month's supply to people in need.

"For many families, a month's supply of pet food can mean the difference between keeping their pet or having to leave their pet at an animal shelter," said spokesperson Mondy Lamb. "And for many pets, staying in their home and out of an animal shelter can mean the difference between life and death."

The Wake SPCA hopes that drawing in people with offers of free pet food will also boost use of the organization's spay/neuter clinic.

Across the country, other animal advocacy groups are also taking action to help pet owners weather the economic crisis. As we reported earlier this year, for example, the Humane Society of the United States has created a Foreclosure Pets Fund offering grants to local shelters, rescue groups and animal control agencies for programs that help cash-strapped families care for their pets.