Currently, SNAP defines “food” as items only “for human consumption.”

food stamps for pets
Credit: Chalabala / Getty Images

SNAP benefits – commonly referred to as “food stamps” – can be a surprisingly controversial issue in the United States. Opponents tend to frame the program as an unnecessary handout eating up tax dollars whereas proponents prefer to see it as, well, providing fellow Americans with the food they need to survive. Now, a new online petition is making the rounds that is likely to invoke strong emotions from both sides of the debate, urging the USDA to extend SNAP benefits to include food for pets.

The petition, posted to the site Care2, was penned by Edward B. Johnston Jr, a 59-year-old living in Mississippi. “Each year, over 40 million low- or no-income people in the United States rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help purchase food for themselves and their families,” the petition begins. “But what about their pets? Unfortunately, SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy pet food, leaving poor families with pets in a difficult position.” Johnston then makes a personal appeal. “I am one of those Americans,” he writes. “I have only been on SNAP benefits for a few months, but I have been unable to feed my little dog due to government regulations.”

According to The Washington Post, changing SNAP rules would likely take more work than simply talking to the USDA. Since the Food Stamp Act was passed back in 1964, “food” has always been defined as “any food or food product for human consumption.” Congress would need to step in to change that.

However, the paper also pointes to several potential advantages to the idea. About 5.5 million dogs enter shelters each year according to one statistic, a number that can also chew away at tax dollars. Additionally, without pet food, many people resort to feeding pets human food, which can be bad for the animals. It’s one of the reasons the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals came out in support of the petition. “It’s potentially game-changing,” said President Matt Bershadker. “I think we should get behind this in a big way.”

Johnston provides his reasoning as well. “Some argue that people should not keep pets if they cannot afford them, but the fact is that an individual or family's financial status can change at any time. Should someone be forced to give up a pet they've had for years just because they hit a financial rough patch?” he writes in the petition. “Pets are also important for emotional support. Being poor is hard enough without being expected to give up your companion.”

Though just how the majority of Americans would feel about such a proposal is unknown, the concept clearly has some support, garnering over 83,000 signatures so far.