I had an experience this week that has really gotten me thinking about the gift of loving a family pet; and how that joy should not be a privilege reserved only for the financially well off. It was Tuesday afternoon, and a colleague and friend of mine, the surgical specialist at the local veterinary emergency and specialty hospital called me with the case of an 8 month old pit bull puppy that had gotten hit by a car and sustained a serious fracture of its femur (thigh bone). The family who owned the puppy did not have the funds to afford the services of a specialist, as many don’t. The services of this specialist and that referral center generally can be quite costly, so it is not uncommon for my general practice to get calls from them to see if we could take on a case at less cost.
But this case was a bit different…these folks not only could not afford the emergency referral center, they could not afford any level of care. The referral center even had to absorb the cost of the x-rays to get the diagnosis. They told my surgeon friend that they could raise $500 within 48 hours to put toward the repair, but that was it. There was not adequate credit worthiness for consideration for any medical financing plans, and $500 would cover 1/3 at most of what it would cost to surgically repair a fracture like this in my practice. What’s more, without any prior relationship with this family, we really had no certainty that they would even come through with the $500 anyway.
I discussed the matter with the other associate veterinarian in my practice, and we decided to use a combination of rescue fund money that we raise through candy machine sales and private donations, the $500 the owners would hopefully come through with, and apply some discounting of the surgery and ancillary care. In the end, we managed to get the surgery done for this puppy and its family.
The puppy is still in the hospital as we oversee his initial rehabilitation phase, and when the family came to visit him yesterday, I was both elated and saddened. The puppy was wagging his tail and reveling in the love of his family; the two boys, each 12 and 14 hugged their beloved puppy as if he had been resurrected from the dead, and the mother sat in the corner sobbing from happiness. She told me that this was her first dog and never understood how much love she could have for a creature like this, and that when he got hurt, she was overwhelmed with grief at his suffering that they did not seem to have the means to have fixed, and her fear of losing him was something she would have never expected. She gave me one of the biggest hugs I have ever received from a non-family member, and from a person I had just met at that. The puppy still has a long way to go to get through this, but I left my practice yesterday feeling a mix of happiness for this family that my practice was able to offer hope for what previously seemed a hopeless situation, and sadness because responsible pet ownership like so many other things in our society, seems to be gravitating to a paradigm where the love and companionship of an animal is becoming a gift only to be enjoyed by the financially well off.
I look at this financially challenged, but tight knit and loving family that absolutely love their dog and the dog that clearly loves them back 100 fold. Should people like this have to be shut out of the joy of loving such a creature because they do not have much money to care for him optimally? Should this dog be denied the love of this family because they do not have much money?
Before discussing this further, let me be clear that there is a clear distinction between families like the owner of the aforementioned puppy; and people that just make bad choices. There are those like the former example that rescued the puppy and fell in love with him in the process; and those like the latter would make the decision to spend $3000 on a full breed English Bulldog and leave no money left over for its veterinary care…for a breed that is known to have constant health problems that need to be addressed. While I feel for the dogs owned by these types of people who take no consideration for the fact that spending $3000 on a dog that will likely need constant veterinary care knowing full well that they bought the dog with money they did not have; I have little sympathy for their ridiculous choice and the consequences that choice reaps.
But it is the people whose hearts go out to dogs or cats in need, whether the animals are death row pound animals, or were found on the side of the road starving, wet and cold; who want to take these pets in to care for them, love them, and make them members of their families; that I really feel for. And I wish that things could change so that these kind and generous people whose only flaw is poor economic status; could enjoy the love of animals, both given and returned; as this is a joy that would extend to both the animals and the people alike.
The question is, how do we get there? Veterinary hospitals cannot get in habit of giving services away. As small businesses, such behavior will lead to financial jeopardy and eventually disaster. And one of the things any veterinary hospital must avoid.is getting tagged as being the hospital that give services away or allows owners to make payments on services…because then the darker side of human nature kicks in, where abuse of kindness starts to happen, and every hard luck, sob story, real or imagined case begins flowing into your hospital expecting pro bono services and/or payment plans that 50% of which pet owners will not ultimately follow through on.
There really is no one answer to this dilemma, and we will never be able to fix this issue100%, but we can make it better by approaching the problem from many facets.
1.) From the veterinary profession, every general practice should put together a rescue fund to use in times such as these, where there is legitimate need and sincere intent, as best can be ascertained by the medical team through questions, queries, observation, and to be used only when all medical financing options have been attempted and declined. I know there are at least a few veterinarians that follow my blog, so I advise all of you to set one up immediately, and tell all of your vet friends and colleagues to do the same. For all the veterinary technicians that follow my blog, let your veterinarian employers understand the importance of a medical fund, and have them read this post. Money for our fund comes from candy machine sales, an occasional car wash, and direct donations into a donation box we have on the reception desk. The generosity of pet owners cannot be overstated…it is always so pleasantly surprising to see how much people are willing to give to help others that are less fortunate.
2.) Pet owners need to be educated about what a minimal standard of care for their pet means, how it protects not just the health of the pet, but also the health of their family. They need to understand that pets are like murphy’s law: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong…they get injured and sick, and there must be a means to provide the necessary veterinary care when needed. There are methods people can implore to attain these means, such as what I call the $50 rule: putting aside $50 per month per pet in a separate savings account. This should be done automatically with that account used only for the health needs of the household pets. Most people no matter how financially strapped, can part with that amount of money each month, which works out to only $12.50 per week. That amount of money will likely cover the general yearly wellness and grooming needs of the pet, while leaving some put away for a potentially expensive injury or illness. People should also be educated about pet insurance, where reputable companies like Trupanion are offering reasonable premiums to cover large veterinary bills (up to 90%) in times of unexpected injury or illness. I will be educating the owners of the puppy whose story I told, of all of this at the time discharge. But this information cannot just come from veterinarians: it must come from everyone. We all know people who own pets, genuinely love them, but do not have the financial resources to properly provide for their health care. You must take the initiative to educate them that there are ways to plan and prepare to provide their pets necessary health care. They must also know clearly that failing to meet the health needs of a pet, puts their human family in jeopardy as well.
3.) Breeders of pure bred dogs and cats must do home inspections of prospective puppy/kitten buyers, as well as ask tough questions to ascertain of the prospective buyers would be getting themselves in over their heads. No matter how responsibly bred a dog or cat may be, pure breed animals carry a lot of genetic baggage that came with the selective breeding necessary to achieve the status of being a distinct breed. If a breeder determines that an English Bulldog, for example, is likely too much for a prospective buyer to handle financially, he/she should perhaps advise they get a healthy mutt for free at the pound. The genetic variation that mutts have tend to make them healthier, harder dogs that do not require as much health care.
4.) Prospective adopters of pets must also take personal responsibility for the pets they choose to adopt. As I stated, a premeditated purchase of an expensive dog one cannot afford is inexcusable, but in impromptu rescue situations where people are just looking to do the right thing, they deserve our compassion and guidance. Despite that, these folks may only see love and empathy for the pet they have taken in, and fail to see the bigger picture of the pet being a responsibility of a life that needs regular wellness care and will inevitably need health care in time of injury or illness. We have to reach out to these people, get beyond their hearts, and reach out to their more practical side, and decide on strategies to afford the care that their beloved new pet deserves. If you are one of these people, take heed and start making the changes right away. I love people with big hearts, but if there is not a big wallet to go with your big heart, then you need to let a little realism creep in and get prompted to start responsibly and effectively preparing for a rainy day.
To maintain a society where pet guardianship does not become yet another joy in life partaken by only haves and not by the have nots, it must be a team effort to make a difference, where we all do our parts. From veterinarians setting up rescue funds to people being kind enough to donate to those rescue funds, to breeders and friends of pet owners taking the time to educate pet owners who are financially challenged to make easily implemented and practical preparations to properly provide for the health care needs of their pets; there is a role each and every one of us can play in caring for one another, and one another’s furry family members.