Costly veterinary care forces impossible choices for low-income pet owners: B.C. advocates

Animal groups on the Lower Mainland say pets are being shuffled from poor to rich homes because of barriers to veterinary care and it’s time to stop discriminating against owners. Crystal Laderas reports.

The high cost of veterinary care forces many to make heartbreaking choices — whether it’s choosing between paying rent and caring for their pet, or surrendering a loved companion animal to a shelter — and Metro Vancouver animal welfare groups say this needs to change.

Kathy Powelson, the executive director of Paws for Hope Animal Foundation, says the current system is set up to take pets away from people who are poor and put them up to be adopted by people who are wealthy.

For her, expanding access to veterinary care is a matter of equity.

“Historically, animal welfare and animal protection agencies have penalized people in poverty who had pets. We’ve been quick to remove them, or require them to surrender them in order for them to get the veterinary care that they need,” she says.

“We have a responsibility to right these wrongs. Animal welfare workers in the sector really need to start seeing ourselves as a social justice movement, and we need to look at how we can care for animals with the families that they have. It serves nobody to remove a loved pet from their family because they need help.”

‘Behind a pet in need, is a person in need’ 

The group takes a “One Welfare” approach, meaning they try to address the needs of both animals and their human guardians.

“Our program recognizes that pets are family and recognizes that behind a pet in need there more often not is a family or a person who’s also in need,” she says.

Rescuing animals from neglect, cruelty and disaster is something Powelson says will unfortunately always be necessary. But she doesn’t think there’s any excuse for filling shelters with animals whose owners desperately want to keep them.

“The vast majority of animal welfare issues is inadequate access to veterinary care, not intentional acts of neglect or cruelty,” she says.

“Let’s not fill our shelters and our foster homes with loved pets, so that an animal who has been mistreated or abandoned has a place to be.”

The Vancouver Humane Society is offering solutions, releasing a new study with recommendations on how to improve access to care.

Communications Director, Chantelle Archambault, says they recommend compassionate pricing, and payment plans as part of providing trauma-informed care that will keep owners and pets together.

“People of all income levels benefit from the companionship of animals, but not all people have the resources to access urgent veterinary care when they need to,” she says.

While donor-funded supports like the BC SPCA’s Charlie’s Pet Food Bank help, but advocates say a system-level change is necessary — and the issue is more urgent now than ever.

Powelson says the pandemic has quadrupled demand for services.

“There are families who would not have required access to our services, pre-COVID that do now. We do hear about people who have spent their rent money on a veterinary emergency and then come to us to try to recoup some of the costs so they can pay rent, and that’s it’s such a devastating thing to happen,” she says.

‘Poverty is not a character flaw’

Archambault says if there were subsidies available, or caps on prices more people would be able to afford a vet visit.

“There’s no veterinary funding program from the federal government or provincial government. There isn’t subsidization for veterinary care like there is for human medical care, despite the fact that animals are extremely important to people’s mental health, emotional well being and resilience,” she says.

Beyond helping keep pets and their humans together, Archambault says making care accessible would help ease the stress on people working in veterinary care who are experiencing incredibly high levels of burnout. If pets can be seen before a situation is critical, the number of pets that would need to be surrendered or euthanized would decrease, which would ease the strain on staff of having to facilitate or witness so many of their clients’ painful decisions.

Powelson says the current system amounts to punishing people who can’t afford to pay a veterinary bill.

“An important thing for us to keep in mind is poverty is not a character flaw. Our system and our society has been set up in a way where people experience poverty for reasons beyond their control.”

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