If you find yourself grumbling about pet owners in poverty, try getting personal instead of judgmental and replace worries over the feasibility of veterinary care with options for flexibility.
Getty Images“If they can't afford their pets they shouldn't have them!”
I hear this judgment almost every single day, but is it fair?
Let's get personal (instead of judgmental)
Have you ever been just one or two paychecks away from financial ruin? I know I have, and I bet I'm in good company in this notoriously low-paying profession.
Rent, mortgage payments, bills and student loan payments can pile up quickly. Our financial status can become so precarious and unstable that just one more hit could prove disastrous. Maybe a family member gets sick and needs help paying their rent. Maybe your pet needs emergency surgery. Maybe your car breaks down and you need to pay for repairs. Almost everyone faces similar unexpected expenses at some point. How would these expenses affect you?
Some experts recommend having enough money saved to cover at least six months' worth of bills. If you're like most Americans, you probably don't. What would happen if you lost your job? Your bills would keep coming regardless of whether you could pay them. What would you do?
Poverty and pet owners
Many people in this position end up losing everything. Can you imagine what it would be like to walk away from your home and all your belongings and have nowhere to go? Can you imagine the level of stress and desperation you'd be feeling?
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness, this scenario plays out in real life for an estimated 3.5 million Americans every year, or one out of every 100 people. If you have at least 100 friends, odds are at least one is going through this right now.
Apply this estimate to your practice. If you have 5,000 clients, about 50 of them are experiencing financial collapse or homelessness. But simply asking these clients to give up their pets until they're more financially stable is anything but simple.
Let's get personal (again)
After a hard day at work, doesn't it feel good to go home to kitty purrs and warm little doggy bodies snuggled up against you? Studies have shown that pets make us feel better, lower our blood pressure and decrease our stress levels.
For many in the throes of financial distress, their pets are the only thing they have left and are a source of comfort. If I were in their shoes, my pets would be the last thing I'd want to give up. I'd do anything necessary to keep them with me.
I see this same resolve in many of my clients, coming to my clinic for vaccines to prevent suffering and further financial stress down the line and paying for their dog's ear medication with crumpled ones and fives. When they receive devastating news that their dog has parvo or their cat is in renal failure, I see them desperately call every friend and family member they can think of to ask for help.
Client finances 101
A recent veterinary school graduate at my hospital diagnosed a dog with parvo last week. She confidently put together a treatment plan that covered hospitalization, IV fluids, pain medication, antibiotics and lab work.
When the tech who presented the treatment plan to the owner reported that the owner couldn't afford it and wanted to know other options, the dumbfounded doctor was at a loss for words. She had been taught how to do a physical exam, what tests to run, how to diagnose an illness and how to treat that illness. What she hadn't been taught is how to deal with the reality of client finances.
When such situations arise (and they will) we need to first silence our near-sighted judgments and offer these pet owners our unmitigated respect. If, when you get off work, you drive in your car to a comfortable home and watch some television while dinner is prepared, it's been said that you are richer than 75 percent of the world's population. Instead of looking down on those who can't enjoy these advantages, let's look up to them for managing to get through life without them.
So, what's a doc to do?
Giving respect is free. The services you offer are not. It's simply not feasible to treat pets for free, but here's what you can do:
When I'm not working at my hospital, I work with the pets of homeless veterans who are some of the most creative people on the planet. I know one man whose dog had mammary cancer and a broken jaw requiring surgery. I reached out to three veterinarians who offered their surgical services at cost. During one marathon surgery, the cancer was removed, the jaw was repaired, the diseased teeth that had caused the jaw to weaken were removed, and we even spayed the dog.
Throughout that dog's hospitalization, the owner would work odd jobs during the day and turn the money in to the clinic each night. He had a small balance to pay after the dog was discharged, but he was so grateful to the clinic for what they had done that he faithfully paid that balance down to zero. The gentleman is now back on his feet and is the clinic's No. 1 fan.
Financial hardships can affect any one of us (if they haven't already). If I were in financial trouble, I would want someone to reach out and help me without judging me. Be that person for someone else.
Julie Carlson, CVT, is a freelance author. She is the winner of the 2015 Hero Veterinary Technician Award from the American Humane Association and the Founder of Vets for Vets' Pets, a nonprofit organization providing medical care to the pets of homeless and at-risk veterans. Julie has five cats, two Chihuahuas and one fish and lives in Phoenix, Arizona.