The problem with pet care isn’t what you think it is

In the space of an hour on social media, I saw posts:

1) Calling out pet owners for using liquid ivermectin (sold for livestock) on dogs to prevent heartworm infestation. Ivermectin is the active ingredient in popular heartworm preventives, and the argument was that the dose/quality was hard to get right when using the livestock product, which is true, but … misses why people are using it.

2) Calling for greater communications/education about preventive and wellness care for pets as part of a post about 40% of pets who never see a veterinarian, as if many of these people aren’t aware. Many would take their pets in, were it not for money or other issues, such as transportation and a lack of veterinarians where they live.

In both cases, these posters completely miss the damn point:

Many people can’t afford the cost of flea/tick/heartworm preventives, and they’re doing the very best they can for the pets they love.

Ditto with wellness/preventive care, which can also run several hundred to a couple thousand a year if your dog needs very regular dentals (which is pretty much all small dogs, and NO a “no-anesthetic” dental is not dental care, no matter what your feed store says).

Note before I go on: Most veterinarians are NOT getting rich. They’re carrying massive student debt burdens, and even with decent salaries they can barely scrape by. Saving for a home, the kids’ college or retirement? LOL! They’re working stiffs just as you and I are, and they are not calling the shots because they don’t own the practices. While previous waves of veterinary practice purchasers have come from within the veterinary community, big-money investment funds are jumping on board now, picking up veterinary practices to bundle, maximize profit and flip, in the same way investors have stripped many communities of the entry-level homes that are necessary to provide stable neighborhoods and grow middle-class wealth, turning entire communities into renters who aren’t invested in their communities and who can be evicted at will.

In short: Veterinarians are as much a victim of this corporate greed as we are.

Wanna fix this?

1) Quit bashing pet-owners AND veterinarians for trying to do the best they can. And no, don’t give me that “if you can’t afford X level of care for a pet, you shouldn’t have one” or “if that vet really loved animals, they wouldn’t insist on charging XYZ that I can’t afford!” Understand that even those veterinarians who own their own practices need to pay their bills, their employees, their insurance, taxes and so on, and those who work for corporations largely cannot reduce your bill because they’re not allowed to. And veterinarians, quit bashing people who can’t afford care. No, you don’t have to care for their pets if they can’t afford it, but you can acknowledge the issues and offer lower-cost alternatives when discussing care. If that still doesn’t help, stabilize for transfer or euth if that’s the owner’s decision, and try harder not to judge.

2) Acknowledge the structural problems, both of the veterinary industry and of a country in which the gap between rich and poor grows wider by the day, and the middle class is hanging by a thread. Nothing will get better as long as this keeps getting worse.

3) Continue to develop spectrum of care offerings to help the pets owned by people of all income groups. The gold-plated, top-level standard of care is out of reach for many, and even with pet health insurance (assuming you can afford the monthly premium), most plans are reimbursement, meaning you still have to pay up front. Many people have no access to credit and little if no savings, and pet insurance cannot help them. We need alternatives to help these people and their pets. Because guess what? They WANT to do better by their pets. They just can’t.

4) Acknowledge that much of the costs of veterinary care passes through from large companies that set prices for drugs such as … ivermectin (!) for the pet market. There is no excuse for the price-gouging on meds that have been generic and widely available for decades and are dirt cheap to produce.

5) Fund our great public universities again, so tuition is within the realm of possibility for those who enter professions that serve us all (and this includes veterinary medicine even if you don’t have animals, since veterinarians are a key component of public health protection). Yeah, that means taxes, which are supposed to be for the greater good, and there’s no good greater than an informed, educated citizenry with critical thinking skills, and professionals whose level of education and skill helps us all, from protecting our health to building/re-building our infrastructure. Tax the rich, who’ve been getting all the benefits of tax breaks while getting richer and richer still while schools, roads and other public goods crumble.

6) Fund loan forgiveness programs that pay off student loans for those who work a set period in underserved communities. And allow refinancing of debt when lower interest rates are lower, and allow personal bankruptcies for those who can no longer pay. (For the life of me, I don’t grok why it’s acceptable to bail out banks/industries — while allowing their execs to walk away wealthy — while shouting “personal responsibility” at ordinary people who need a break.) For those new grads who don’t need the assistance, they don’t need to sign up. But helping those who need a hand will not only help diversify a very white veterinary workforce (and as such, help to reach communities where veterinarians are few), but will also put veterinarians back in rural areas, where farmers/ranchers desperately need them.

That would be a start, and it would sure be better than pet-owners trashing veterinarians who are themselves in a bind, and veterinarians getting frustrated with pet-owners who can’t afford care. We’re whistling as we walk by the elephants in the room, and we need to stop doing that.