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The pain and privilege of caring for pets

Our home is full of pets. It’s chaotic, often loud, and covered in hair. It is challenging to find a pet sitter when we go away. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I cannot imagine our home without pets—except perhaps when all four dogs are barking at the same time at something or someone walking down our street.  

There is so much joy in caring for pets. But that joy can very quickly turn to stress and anxiety when they become sick. And your financial capacity to access the veterinary care they need directly affects that stress and anxiety. And some of us have more capacity than others. 

Recently, I was reminded just how stressful the situation can be for the many pet families that struggle to access veterinary care. In a span of a few short weeks, one of our dogs needed dental surgery; another who recently had knee surgery got an infection in that leg; and one of our cats developed what would turn out to be a brain tumour and would have to be euthanized. 

None of our pets have pet insurance (a discussion for another day) and the costs piled up very quickly—costs that we didn’t have the cash for. However, I did have access to a line of credit and credit cards but I know very well that this is a luxury that is not available to everyone. As I watched my cat struggle with the symptoms of her tumour (which we initially thought was an ear infection) and my dog struggle with the discomfort of an infected leg, I struggled to imagine how truly horrible it would have been if I were not able to access any of the veterinary care they needed. 

But I know very well that this is a reality that many people face every single day. 

And in addition to the financial constraints that limit people’s access to veterinary care, where you live also determines how accessible veterinary care is. Veterinary deserts (areas where there are no veterinary hospitals) exist across the country, particularly in remote, northern communities.  

In these places, even those who can afford to take their pets to a veterinary hospital are required to drive for 8 hours or more or forced to take a plane or water taxi. In many places across our country, emergency veterinary care simply isn’t an option at all. 

Put quite simply, we are facing a veterinary crisis. More animals suffer because of a lack of veterinary care than there are who suffer from intentional acts of cruelty or neglect.  

At Paws for Hope, we experience this every day. We are currently receiving an average of 200 calls a month from people who are desperate to get their beloved family members to a veterinarian. And with soaring inflation rates, we anticipate this will continue to worsen as everything else gets more expensive.  

In response, some may say that “owning” pets is a privilege. Some people argue that if you cannot afford to care for an animal then you shouldn’t have one.  But by asserting that pet ownership is a privilege, we are ignoring the very real social inequities that exist in our society—inequities that create advantages for certain groups of people over others simply by characteristics or conditions that are beyond anyone’s control. 

Our society is structured to marginalize people because of their race, gender, disability, sexuality, mental health, or history of abuse and neglect. These are people who face barriers simply because of circumstances or who they are, people who are blamed for their situation, as if it were a choice or a character flaw rather than a symptom of colonialism, racism, bureaucracy, prejudice or stigma. The way our society is structured means they will never know the various privileges that many of us have spent our lives taking for granted—the ways we benefit from the laws and systems that neglect and harm them.

Declaring pet ownership as a privilege asserts that only certain groups of people can have access to this privilege. It denies the tremendous benefits of pet companionship to groups of people who are already disenfranchised and isolated. It reinforces the notion that certain groups of people are valued more than others.

And given the current state of our animal welfare system, where shelters and rescues are beyond capacity with animals in need of homes, this perspective (that some families are more deserving of having a pet than others) increases the likelihood that healthy and adoptable animals will be euthanized due to the lack of “suitable” homes.

The world is changing fast and we need to do our best to catch up. Our role as animal welfare champions can no longer be solely about advocating for the animals. We also have to work toward understanding and dismantling these harmful systems and prejudices and work towards building communities of care and support for all people and their pets.  

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