The upside of crowdfunding for pet care

March 11, 2020
Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN

Freelance writer Rachael Zimlich worked as a reporter for dvm360 magazine before returning to school to become a registered nurse. She now works at The Cleveland Clinic.

Some veterinary professionals find online fundraising for pet care distasteful, but it does have some plusses.

Visit GoFundMe and search “pet,” and you will be inundated with pleas for help with veterinary care expenses. More than $50,000* has been donated for open heart surgery for Lola the Schnauzer, and donors have given $31,591 to help pay for Sporty the golden retriever’s cancer treatments. Even veterinarians are wielding the power of online donations, with one California veterinarian collecting more than $91,000 to help provide care for pets of the homeless.

While some of these represent extreme hardship and unexpected tragic situations that may cost more to fix than anyone could budget for, there is also a trend in crowd-funding to ask for help simply to cover regular, albeit expensive, pet care issues.

There are grumblings about using fundraising to cover what maybe should be considered routine costs, but dvm360.com contributor Sarah Wooten, DVM, CVJ, says there has been a sense, particularly in the veterinary community, that fundraisers for pet care make the profession look bad. Maybe the costs are too high? Maybe the veterinarian should have given them a break? Why was that bill so high? Comments like these are common as you scroll through these fundraising pages, but Dr. Wooten says she doesn’t really see a problem with fundraisers.

“It’s a person who is desperate and trying to save their pet the only way they know how,” she says. “If somebody wants to fundraise to save their pet, let them.”

Veterinary consultant Bash Halow, LVT, CVPM, says he doesn’t blame pet owners either—the cost of pet care is much higher than it used to be, and younger pet owners start their adult lives making much less in many cases than previous generations.

“The cost of the care that we’re pitching is probably going to hurt. Nowadays its 10 times or more expensive than it used to be,” Halow says. “Most people feel that pain and it’s hard for them. People are embarrassed that they don’t have money.”

While setting aside a budget for pet care and purchasing pet insurance are two ways to avoid the need for fundraising, the cost can still be a challenge. Younger generations are using subscription services more than ever, Halow says, so regular, small payments are an attractive option. Still, when a crisis or emergency arises, many clients don’t have the funds, and even if they have insurance, it may not provide for the level of care their pet needs.

“GoFundMe is a creative way to tap the community for the funds needed for your pet,” Dr. Wooten says. “Raising awareness about the affordability of insurance and how it may help alleviate the problem is important, but there is also resistance about pet insurance.”

Veterinarians can’t assume most clients can easily pay for high bills, Dr. Wooten adds. GoFundMe offers patients an option in times of need—it offers emotional support in addition to financial support. Many of these fundraising pages include notes about shared experiences or words of support.

“We lost our beloved schnauzer Mollie Rose to something very similar,” one donor wrote on Lola’s page. “We would have spent any amount of money to have saved her. Sadly, there was nothing that could be done. Please give your Lola lots of hugs and kisses from us and we wish her an easy surgery and recovery.”

Other media platforms offer this emotional support, too, Dr. Wooten says, and that is an important element with GoFundMe. People get support from their friends and hear about shared experiences and challenges. They don’t feel alone. Even patients who can afford care might need this, she says, adding that veterinary clinics may look to suggest supportive communities for their clients who are facing difficult times with their pets. One such option is CareCorrals, part of PrizedPals, a private online community that allows pet owners to support one another.

It also can’t be denied that online fundraising can help raise awareness about certain health issues. Pet owners may share videos of their experiences or pet struggles. She recalls a recent video on dental health. While it was done for education purposes rather than fundraising, it highlights the power of social media and new media platforms in making emotional connections with viewers that have a huge impact on consumer habits.

“There is a company making videos to talk about dental disease in pets,” Dr. Wooten says, explaining how the presenter in the video showed an adorable dog and then—bam!—peeled the gum back to reveal a startling amount of dental disease. “Those are a really good way to reach millennials,” she says. “Also, the industry should be partnering with influencers on social media, not just in the animal space.”

Pets are like children to many Americans, but particularly among younger pet owners. Use of social media influencers is a highly effective marketing tactic, especially when influencers use their own pet as an example or perhaps throw their support behind a harrowing ordeal through GoFundMe to support the cause.

“Influencers share things with their subscribers,” she says. “These communities are huge online, and influencers could be partnered with animal causes.”

While the average veterinarian may not be able to get the hottest influencer to name drop their cause in a post, the power these individuals have in supporting causes and spreading awareness can’t be denied.

Fundraising is not the enemy meant to make veterinarians look bad—it is raising awareness of what good pet care may entail. Offering support, education and positivity to clients in these times of need—maybe by sharing their fundraiser on your practice Facebook page—can go a long way in earning a practice a client for life.

“Most of the time clients are coming and they have very little education when it comes to how to take care of their pet. They need education in bite-sized amounts, easily digestible and not condescending,” Dr. Wooten says. “The good news is they want to take care of their patients. They have champagne taste on beer budget, but they won’t always.”

*Amounts pledged as of March 11, 2020.

Ms. Zimlich is a former reporter for dvm360. In addition to freelance writing, she works as a registered nurse at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.