The RSPCA is to turn away unwanted and stray pets from its animal shelters to cut costs, it emerged yesterday.
The charity said it would focus more on caring for animals seized from owners after being cruelly treated.
The move could affect hundreds of cats and dogs which are taken to its centres every year.
One consequence will be to put pressure on other animal charities, local councils and police.
And it could also lead to more unwanted animals being destroyed.
Soaring numbers of abandoned animals in the last year have contributed to growing pressure on the charity’s finances.
Donations from the public have also fallen because of the recession.
Yesterday the RSPCA defended its new rules, which will be introduced at 17 national animal centres in England and Wales, and said it wanted to make owners take more responsibility for their pets.
‘Our highest priority is to look after the animals that most need help, the pets and other animals rescued by our inspectors from cruelty and neglect,’ a spokesman said.
‘That is the RSPCA’s core aim and that has not changed.’
The policy has been tested at some centres since January.
From next month, pets belonging to people taken to hospital, evicted from their homes or who are unable to cope with them will not be allowed to be left at the RSPCA centres.
Owners will be told to contact the police, the local council or another charity.
The RSPCA has a further 41 regional centres which are independently run and which will choose for themselves whether to follow suit.
The British Veterinary Association said it understood the RSPCA’s resources were ‘not limitless’.
A spokesman said: ‘We must look to the cause of the increasing number of unwanted dogs, cats and exotic animals.
‘The recession perhaps has had some impact but there is a growing trend for people to buy animals as status symbols and indeed it is all too easy to take on a pet without realising the responsibilities for the care and welfare of that animal.’
Clarissa Baldwin, chief executive of the Dogs Trust, said the charity was told about the RSPCA’s decision about two months ago.
She said: ‘It is perhaps too early to estimate the numbers of dogs that will be affected but as the UK’s largest dog welfare charity, Dogs Trust will continue to take in as many dogs in need as possible.
‘The numbers of stray and abandoned dogs have largely continued to fall year-on-year – an increase last year was due partly to the shift of responsibility for strays from the police to local authorities – we do not expect to see an increase this year.
‘Dogs Trust has a relationship with many local authorities and whilst we are not seeing an increase of requests to take their dogs, we do know that the economic climate is forcing some dog owners to reassess whether their family pet is an essential.’
The RSPCA is Britain’s eighth largest charity, and has an income of £119million a year. It is trying to make savings of £54million over three years.
Kim Hamilton, chief executive of animal charity Blue Cross, said: ‘Many thousands of animals are given up every year by loving owners who simply can’t cope for a variety of reasons.
‘We recognise that changing circumstances may require difficult decisions to be taken, however the Blue Cross will always help people who make the responsible choice to give up their pet and will continue to do all that we can to help as many abandoned animals as possible find permanent, loving new homes.’