Nonprofits That Serve People Should Also Support Their Pets
During the pandemic, demand for pets grew at an astonishing rate. More than 23 million households in the United States — nearly one in five — acquired a dog or cat as people sought companionship during months of isolation. While this is great news for animals and their owners, it has also contributed to a growing problem: Many of the people nonprofits serve, struggle to afford care for their pets.
A nationwide shortage of affordable veterinarian care, especially for those who live in rural or low-income areas, forces families to give up pets they love but lack the means to support. In a
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During the pandemic, demand for pets grew at an astonishing rate. More than 23 million households in the United States — nearly one in five — acquired a dog or cat as people sought companionship during months of isolation. While this is great news for animals and their owners, it has also contributed to a growing problem: Many of the people nonprofits serve struggle to afford care for their pets.
A nationwide shortage of affordable veterinarian care, especially for those who live in rural or low-income areas, forces families to give up pets they love but lack the means to support. In a study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 40 percent of low-income people said they would not have relinquished their pets if affordable vet care had been available. Even before the pandemic and recent economic challenges caused by inflation, at least 19 million pets resided with families living under the federal poverty line and millions more lived in working families struggling to get by.
The affordability problem is compounded by the limited number of veterinary clinics in marginalized communities. In most cases, food deserts that lack access to grocery stores also lack adequate veterinary care, a critical component to ensuring pets can stay in their homes.
Conventional thinking at one time held that people who couldn’t afford pets shouldn’t have them. But a new sensibility is emerging. Research clearly shows that caring for pets is good for their owners and shouldn’t be dictated by the size of a person’s bank account. The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute has found that relationships with pets improve physical and emotional health, encourage positive social development in children — including learning to take responsibility — reduce loneliness, and help create stronger communities.
Grant makers that support vulnerable populations should recognize that pets are an integral part of families and that helping pets thrive deserves a place in programming priorities. Given the scope of the veterinary-care crisis in this country, philanthropic organizations of all stripes have a role to play.
PetSmart Charities, the organization I lead, estimates that it would cost $23 billion annually to provide adequate care to pets who currently aren’t receiving even basic wellness and prevention services, such as vaccinations and spaying or neutering. Addressing the problem will require a two-pronged approach that focuses on both the cost of care and the availability of a diverse pool of veterinarians willing to work in underserved areas.
Making pet care affordable. Veterinary costs have risen exponentially in recent years, along with prices for pharmaceutical products, technology, and medical equipment. The Access to Veterinary Care Coalition has found that an estimated 28 percent of pet owners can’t afford the rising costs of vet care.
In 2021, Americans spent $34.3 billion on vet care, up from $13 billion in 2010. Although estimates vary widely depending on location, scope of service, and size or breed of the pet, PetSmart Charities estimates an average annual cost of $300 for wellness and preventative pet care nationwide — a number that is significantly higher in expensive urban areas. For people living in poverty or barely getting by, such costs make it nearly impossible to provide pets with even the basic care they need.
Opening more low-cost vet clinics is a first step toward addressing the problem. This year, our corporate partner, PetSmart, donated space in three stores — in Pueblo, Colo.; Houston; and Philadelphia — to host affordable-care clinics funded by PetSmart Charities. They are run by the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region in Colorado and by the nonprofit Emancipet in Houston and Philadelphia. Patients self-identify financial need, and no one is ever turned away for lack of ability to pay. Clients who can afford it are encouraged to donate what they can.
The Humane Society also offers low-cost clinics around the country. Recently, the Atlanta Humane Society opened a community clinic called Remedy, which aims to connect some 6,500 pets to low-cost and accessible vet care, including fee waivers for owners who can’t afford services such as spaying and neutering.
Efforts such as these need further support to expand their services into underserved areas across the country. Foundations, animal-welfare organizations, social-service agencies, veterinarians, and veterinary-care advocacy groups need to work together to create solutions at the local and national level.
This work will require making innovative connections between animal care and the services already provided by nonprofits. Shelters for the homeless or domestic-violence survivors could, for example, adopt pet-friendly policies, including offering preventative care for animals. Food banks could partner with local veterinarians to periodically provide mobile veterinary clinics alongside their food-distribution operations. Disaster-response groups could offer shelter, safety, and care for family pets as part of overall emergency aid. And those that work with older people could add services for their animals as well, recognizing that pets are often the only source of regular companionship for this demographic.
Expanding and diversifying the veterinary field. The vet profession is experiencing a major work-force crisis as the number of people entering the field declines while interest in owning a pet grows. Vet-care provider Mars Veterinary Health estimates that spending on pet care will increase by 33 percent during the next decade. Unless efforts are made to attract more people to the profession, Mars projects a shortage of 15,000 veterinarians in the United States by 2030.
The veterinary profession must also attract a broader pool of candidates that mirror the diversity of pet ownership. A limited number of providers, for instance, speak the languages of pet owners in immigrant communities or understand differing cultural sensibilities about pet care. Without those connections, it’s difficult to develop the trust necessary to seek help.
But cost and a lack of exposure to the field among lower-income populations create significant obstacles. The American Veterinary Medical Association found that student debt in 2020 grew four and a half times as fast as income for new veterinary graduates and that average educational debt was nearly $160,000. This makes veterinary school out of reach for many, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color, who are more likely to grow up in communities that lack accessible veterinary care and professional role models who might draw them to the field.
To reduce these barriers, several animal-welfare organizations offer scholarship opportunities to aspiring veterinarians, including Alliance Animal Health, the Animal Welfare Institute, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and PetSmart Charities. Last year, Mars announced an investment of $500 million to support career and educational opportunities in the veterinary field, including improving pay and benefits, helping to pay down student debt, and creating a more diverse workforce.
But greater philanthropic and business support is needed to attract a larger and more diverse group of people to the profession. That includes making support for pet care part of larger messages about addressing such issues as poverty and homelessness.
Those of us who have spent years building a better world for animals know that strong and healthy societies value the welfare of both pets and their owners. We are facing a crisis in pet care in this country, and solving it needs to be a priority.