February 9, 2016
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Have you ever had a moment when someone you cared about was hurt or upset, and you felt like there was nothing you could do about it? Remember the sense of helplessness you had?
I do. That sense of watching a loved one suffer and being unable to improve the situation is a horrible feeling. Most of us have experienced it—and unfortunately, people who live in poverty experience it frequently.
I spent years working in underserved communities before the development of The HSUS’s Pets for Life program, and that work showed me the reality for so many people and pets: Poverty is isolating. It limits and often completely removes options and choices when it comes to things like food, education, jobs, housing—and pet care. I’ve talked with so many people who see their dog or cat struggling with an illness or injury and they try everything within their reach to make it better. One lady I met while working with the Coalition to Unchain Dogs comes to mind. Ms. Ella lost her husband after decades of marriage, and his dog, Ringo, was all she had left of him. Ringo grieved and Ms. Ella comforted him the best she could as she also grieved. Ringo soon began having issues with his sight and balance. Ms. Ella didn’t have the money for a visit to the veterinarian and felt hopeless. The last thing Ms. Ella or Ringo deserved was to be without support. Fortunately, the Coalition to Unchain Dogs provided a veterinary visit and subsequent treatment for vertigo free of charge to them. Ringo had another happy nine months, and after losing him, Ms. Ella went to the Coalition to adopt two new dogs.
Although pet ownership crosses all social and geographic boundaries, access to information and services do not. What so many of us take for granted in terms of caring for our family pets is a struggle for millions of people living in poverty across the country. Something as simple as flea/tick preventative for your cat or taking your dog in to see the veterinarian when she has an allergic reaction to a bee sting is out of reach financially for countless people.
Just as there are food deserts, there are animal service deserts, where few to no resources are available. When there are no veterinarians in your community, standard wellness care isn’t the norm and familiarity with common pet health issues just doesn’t exist. For example, not knowing that certain over-the-counter dewormers will be ineffective in treating the type of intestinal parasite your dog has, and without a prescription product and veterinary exam, your dog will continue to lose weight regardless of how much you feed her. When there are no pet supply stores or big box retailers, simple items like pet food or a collar and leash are out of reach. People actually end up spending more and experiencing disproportionate financial burdens because they can’t buy items in bulk or have to prioritize the most pressing needs of the moment, often being forced to wait until situations are dire to address their pet’s needs. If you have no money to save and must spend everything you earn to keep your family afloat day to day, prevention and planning are off the table. I have often seen cases where families don’t have the money for vaccinations, and then a dog ends up with parvo and the cost of treatment for the disease is astronomical, or the purchase of a cat’s ear mite medication is put off and then the cat develops a more severe issue with a hematoma.
The greatest lesson from Pets for Life, however, is that a lack of money does not mean lack of love. I’ve watched how the bond people have with their pets doesn’t depend on their income, their geography, the language they speak or their race. I have seen how everyone’s lives can be enhanced by a pet, and everyone who chooses should have the opportunity to experience the unconditional love and meaningful relationship a pet brings.
Pets for Life embraces the human in humane and considers the perspective of the people the program serves. Our approach to reaching people in underserved communities is the key to our success. We don’t sit back and expect for people to come to us. We take the information and the services directly to the community, at people’s front doors and inside their homes. Most importantly, since trust and relationships mean everything, we build those over time with understanding, compassion, and non-judgment.
I’ve seen it over and over again with my own eyes—pet owners who live in poverty have to work extremely hard to provide even the most basic pet care and are often demonized or accused of being irresponsible with their pets. Looking beyond what’s on the surface and getting past assumptions has highlighted for me some tough realities—Ms. Betty’s cat is unaltered because she has no transportation to get to the clinic. Vanessa’s dog lives outside because her landlord doesn’t allow indoor pets. Stu’s dog doesn’t have the most nutritional diet because only one type of food is offered at the corner store, which is the only one he can get to.
Through my 10 years of working in underserved communities, I have no doubt that the way to make a positive difference and create lasting change is to recognize that at our core we are all the same, especially when it comes to our pets. Many people are struggling to make ends meet and get through each day, so the companionship and emotional support of a family pet is invaluable. I also know animal welfare organizations that want to be most effective and truly drive change in their communities need to celebrate that connection and focus on keeping people and pets healthy, happy and together.
What can your role be? How can you prevent someone from feeling powerless?