Pets are part of the family. That makes it harder when veterinary care is out of reach

Like many families around the country, we added a four-legged companion to our household at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I know I’m not the first dog owner to make this bold proclamation, but I believe it is true: Mango is one of the world’s best dogs.

A parent at our sons’ elementary school once (accurately) described her as “aggressively friendly.” Despite weighing only 11 pounds, Mango drags us around on her daily walks to greet everyone she sees. When she meets old friends, she levitates off the ground, shaking with absolute happiness.

Our two sons had been begging for a dog for several years. My husband and I finally said yes … for them. The dog was going to be for the boys and we would help facilitate its care. We held off for so long because, to put it bluntly, we thought a dog would be more work than reward.

Then Mango arrived. When I held her for the first time and looked in her sweet, dark eyes, I got an unexpected jolt of love at first sight. During an especially difficult time with the pandemic and all the upheaval in our lives, Mango has given us so much joy and comfort.

We have joined the very, very large club of pet owners who are devoted to their cats, dogs, horses, guinea pigs, birds, lizards and other companion animals.  More American households today have pets than children and, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, most dog and cat owners consider their pets members of the family.

When our animals suffer, we suffer too. Yet for many, veterinary care is simply out of reach. Only about 3 percent of U.S. pet owners have pet insurance and one in four pet owners experience barriers to veterinary care, often due to financial constraints.

“It horrifies me to think of what the families go through when that need is there and cannot be met,” said Dr. Michael Blackwell, a veterinarian and director of the University of Tennessee’s Program for Pet Health Equity. In my reporting for the PBS News Weekend, Blackwell told me the lack of access to veterinary care is a “national crisis.”

He led a study in 2018 that looked at barriers to veterinary care and found an estimated 29 million dogs and cats live with families that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. Enrollment in a public assistance program like SNAP can be one indicator of an owner’s ability to afford veterinary care, but it’s an issue that impacts many other families too, according to Blackwell.

“More than half of families in the country live paycheck to paycheck,” Blackwell told me. “One can be middle class and still be challenged to pay, especially an unforeseen veterinary bill.”

Some owners also face challenges buying food and supplies or finding a place to live that will accept pets. The Washington Post recently highlighted the story of Lilo, an abandoned dog in Tennessee whose owner was experiencing homelessness and couldn’t afford to keep her, attaching a note to Lilo’s leash. Luckily, there was a happy ending to the story.

WATCH: Why economic hardship is keeping more animals in shelters

Since 2020, Blackwell and his colleagues have been studying how veterinary care access can be improved through a cost-sharing research project called AlignCare. Eligible, underserved families in the program pay only 20 percent of their veterinary bills and are offered support in and out of the clinic from veterinary social workers. While reporting for this story, I learned veterinary social workers are a small but growing profession providing support to animal owners and veterinary health care teams.

“When you go to a hospital or a doctor’s office, there’s often social workers there. It’s a very similar model for the veterinary community,” said Augusta O’Reilly, director of social work for AlignCare.

I met up with O’Reilly in Knoxville, Tennessee, on a beautiful morning outside the home of Charlotte Austrew, who is enrolled in AlignCare. O’Reilly and Austrew embraced with a hug. Over the past year, O’Reilly has helped Austrew with things like enrollment paperwork and veterinary appointments for her dogs and cats.

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Veterinary social workers are a small but growing profession providing support to animal owners and veterinary health care teams. Photo by Cat Wise

While we were all together, O’Reilly listened closely as Austrew told her how things were going in her life and discussed what kinds of other support she might need. Later that day, she joined Austrew at an veterinary appointment for one of her cats.

“A lot of veterinary offices are delivering news that’s really hard for the families to hear,” O’Reilly told me. “Sometimes veterinarians are not able to mentally handle that load themselves. So we’re there to kind of help partner with them and provide that support to families.”

Blackwell says it’s important to address the “elephant in the room” when owners have a hard time caring for their pets.

“The logic goes if you can’t pay for veterinary care, you probably shouldn’t have a pet,” Blackwell told me. “I understand the logic, but the reality is, who am I to dictate relationships? Because what are we saying? Are we going to pass laws and prevent relationships based on some income level? There are human benefits from these relationships, both physical and mental health benefits.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies have shown that human-animal bonds are linked to several health benefits, including “decreased blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD.” They also note that pets offer “increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities; better cognitive function in older adults; and more opportunities to socialize.”

But there can also be drawbacks living in close proximity to animals, including the risk of zoonotic diseases. That’s another compelling reason, according to Blackwell, for better access to veterinary care.

“This is more than about compassion, this is about public health,” Blackwell said. “Six out of 10 infectious diseases we humans can get are zoonotic, meaning the organism is found in some animal species and can be passed on to us. Fortunately, most of these are not coming from pets, but pets do present a threat. The family’s health is at risk and so is the community’s.”

It’s fitting that Mango should appear in my office just as I finish writing. She is gently putting her paw on my leg and looking up at me intently. It’s her way of letting me know it’s time for her afternoon walk. When we get back, she’ll wait patiently at the window for our son to get home from elementary school and then jump all over when he walks in the door like he’s been gone for days. He loves it, and so do I.