DEAR DR. FOX: I have been reading your column for some time, and I appreciate your compassionate views.
Pets are companions for millions of people in this country, and many of us are on a limited income. Just the price of food from Wal-Mart is a stretch. I'd love to feed my pets the homemade food you recommend, but it's out of the question. So are visits to the vet.
So many animal lovers fall into this category. I've even heard several stories of people going through their limited retirement funds to try to save a beloved pet. What's the moral thing to do here? Are pets for the well-off only? -- S.T., Talent, Oregon
DEAR S.T.: You have my sympathy, as do the many people who go hungry at times to properly feed their animal companions or go into debt for veterinary services. The documented emotional and medical benefits of animal companionship could mean a cost savings in public health care to the community.
Low- and fixed-income people who have animal companions -- especially the elderly and home-bound -- should not be seen as a burden on society or prohibited from keeping animals if they cannot provide adequate care.
While animal shelters across the country are generally underfunded, overcrowded and understaffed, city councils and municipal authorities need to see companion animals not as disposable or frivolous and sentimental items of property, but as part of the community of a humane, civil society and as contributors to human well-being.
Communities should focus on the people and animals in need. Cities should consider raising funds and setting up pet food supply banks, along with affordable basic cat and dog health care and even dog walking for those who cannot get out with their canine companions. Healthy retirees could volunteer rather than going on a polluting luxury cruise; the Boy Scouts of America and high school social studies programs could raise funds for pet health care. I would like to hear from other readers about good news they can share on this issue from their communities.
DEAR DR. FOX: Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I agree with everything you said. Sadly, our area does not have the support for animals we'd both like.
When I asked about the morality of having pets you can't really afford to care for properly, I was thinking of a vet who would not have me as a client if I couldn't afford to bring my pet in for regular checkups, etc. He told me I couldn't afford to have a pet if I couldn't do this, and it would be immoral to own an animal I couldn't care for properly.
As you said, pets provide a great benefit to people, so where do you draw the line? Is it moral to have a pet if you can't afford proper health care? I can't even afford health care for myself. When they need a vet and I can't take them, I'm wracked with guilt. What's the answer here?
Thank you so much for wrestling with this. It has bothered me for a long time. -- S.T. Talent, Oregon
DEAR S.T.: Your reply cuts through to the core of the issue, especially in times of economic recession, unemployment and low- and fixed-income communities and individuals. For decades, the Peoples' Dispensary for Sick Animals in my homeland of England has been providing good veterinary care at subsidized costs -- or free for people who bring in tax returns to show they cannot afford to pay for their animals' veterinary needs. More of the animal welfare organizations and charities in the U.S. need to focus on this approach, rather than adopting the callous, or is it despairing, attitude of the veterinarian whom you saw.
Except for the franchised veterinary clinics whose protocols are likely to offer you no financial provisions -- such as an installment payment plan -- I feel that most veterinarians, who often have huge financial obligations to the banks who underwrite their business, are doing their best in these hard times across the nation. Government statistics showing that unemployment is down conceal the fact that many jobs are only part-time with no health insurance or other benefits.
One solution may be through a local or statewide sales tax on pet foods and supplies that is earmarked for assisting those persons and companion animals in need in the community. Putting a tax on veterinary services to generate more public funds, which has been proposed in some states, however, is to be deplored.
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