In South Carolina, roughly 900,000 people own a family pet, and about 360,000 of those households have two to three pets.
In the nation's capital, where $12.1 trillion of national debt looms and Democratic President Barack Obama's projected 2010 budget shortfall is expected to hit $1.26 trillion, a bill is pending to establish up to $3,500 in annual tax deductions for the family pet.
The legislation is known as the HAPPY Act - Humanity and Pets Partnered Through the Years - and it has some support.
Michigan Republican U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter is offering the measure but declined requests for an interview.
The bill alters the Internal Revenue Code to allow individuals to deduct certain expenses from their taxes associated with caring for a pet, much like the tax code already gives up to a $5,700 deduction for dependent children.
So far, none of South Carolina's four Republican congressmen has signed on to the GOP bill as a co-sponsor, and they are split on the issue.
"My family and I are pet owners, but the idea of a pet tax credit is for the birds," said U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis of Travelers Rest.
But animal rights activists and others say animal shelters are "overrun" with stray and unwanted pets. They say a tax deduction could help ease the strain of providing for pets in a struggling economy.
"Deductions like this should be considered, and bills like this should be passed," said Martin Mersereau, PETA's cruelty case division director in Washington, D.C. "Everyone is feeling the economic crunch, including animals."
Mersereau said 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized each year in America, "for lack of a good home."
U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, a Charleston Republican, said he has the highest legislative rating by the Humane Society of any congressional representative in South Carolina.
But "I believe now is not the proper time to pass this kind of legislation," said Brown, ranking member of the Fisheries, Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee.
"During these difficult times, I feel that all of our legislative efforts should be put toward getting South Carolinians back to work, improving our economy and reducing our national debt," said Brown, who faces opposition for re-election in 2010.
U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, a Westminster Republican who is leaving his House seat to run for governor in 2010, issued a statement noting he had no hand in the development of the legislation.
"Since H.R. 3501 has not been slated for a vote on the House floor in the foreseeable future, the congressman has not yet formed an opinion on this legislation," said Emily Tyner, Barrett's press secretary.
Meanwhile, a Columbia homeless pet population that traditionally hovers around 13,000 has swollen to 14,000, while adoptions are down 15 percent, said Marli Drum, city of Columbia superintendent of animals.
"That's a huge number for this area," said Drum, who blames the downturn in the economy. "It's certainly not what we'd like it to be," she said of the crowded conditions.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which provides economic analysis of budget matters for Congress, has not scored the HAPPY Act yet, though budget watchers warn the bills' costs could be budget-breaking.
"This is the kind of thing put into the tax code that, while it may be worthy, we have to start asking ourselves, 'Can we afford it, or not?'" said Harry Zeeve, a pet owner and field director for the conservative Concord Coalition, which normally briefs elected officials on the dangers of federal budget deficits.
"And the answer to that question is, 'not now,'" Zeeve said. With one-third to two-thirds of the U.S. population owning pets, "it's no small price tag," Zeeve said of the cost of the proposed tax cuts.
Advances in veterinary technology and the development of expensive new drugs can make pet ownership more costly now than ever before, Zeeve said.
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from Springdale, likely would support the bill. "Philosophically, this is something the congressman would support," said Pepper Pennington, Wilson's press secretary.
"When it comes to tax relief, his preference would be to hardworking families and small businesses first and foremost," Pennington said.
But "tax relief is tax relief."