April 15, 2024

Animals and Inequality

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

When our cat was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago, our vet very gently let us know that one option would be not to offer further treatment besides palliative care to keep her comfortable. She acknowledged that if her cancer could be treated, that it would be costly, and that there would be no shame if it was not an option for us.

This came as a shock, considering a week before this conversation we thought we had a perfectly healthy 11-year-old cat. As it turns out, the type of cancer she has is aggressive but treatable, and we requested a referral to a veterinary oncologist. During this consultation, the oncologist carefully detailed that the cancer wasn’t curable but could be treated, and laid out the costs of providing such treatment. She also let us know that if the cost of treatment was out of reach, or if we decided we couldn’t or didn’t want to proceed, that was a perfectly reasonable option.

As I wrote about just over a year ago, veterinary care requires a great deal of emotional labor. It was clear that these doctors had these conversations regularly and had become skilled at interacting with humans in a state of shock and grief. In the prior post, I noted how the stress takes a toll on those practicing veterinary medicine, especially when humans cannot afford to treat their animal companions.

We, and in turn our cat, is among the more fortunate in that we can pay for her treatment. As I write, she is undergoing chemotherapy but is more or less her normal, contented self, at least for the moment. Just like with humans, animals may or may not get treatment based on someone’s ability to pay.

Inequality amongst humans impacts animals in other ways too. As this Vox story describes, animal shelters across the country are filling beyond capacity as people have trouble affording to care for them:

Veterinary costs have also heavily outpaced inflation from July 2022 to July 2023 because of increases in the cost of medical supplies and rising wages due in part to a veterinarian shortage. Some veterinarians partly blame the corporate and private equity takeover of clinics and hospitals for rising vet care costs. There’s also a shelter worker shortage, which is part of an economy-wide labor market shortage.

Vox reports that the high cost of housing is also a big factor:

For low-income families, it’s hard enough to find affordable housing, and affordable pet-friendly housing is even harder to secure. Many apartment buildings ban certain breeds or dogs over a certain weight. Shelters are taking in especially high numbers of large dogs over 40–50 pounds, Mann of the Humane Rescue Alliance said.

“The same [economic] trends that affect people always affect animals,” said Filer with Shelter Animals Count, referring to high inflation and the national housing crisis that has led to a rise in eviction rates and homelessness in recent years. Housing insecurity is the top reason people are surrendering their animals, according to Mann and Filer. If someone gets to the point where they’re surrendering their animal out of financial hardship, they’ve generally tried everything else and they have no other option, she added.

In Los Angeles, where I live, shelters are understaffed and have had to turn away strays that concerned residents had tried to surrender. Publicly funded shelters lack the space and resources to help all animals in need. Just as there is a crisis of unhoused people here, animals are facing a similar problem.

Calls for landlords to relax pet policies may help. Recently, the Los Angeles City Council voted to allow renters to keep their pets and not face eviction solely because they might violate a no-pets policy. The county has also suspended issue of breeder’s licenses until shelter capacity declines.

Surrendering a beloved pet takes an emotional toll on humans already in a crisis situation. As the COVID eviction moratorium ended, more people and their pets are likely to face separation. Shelters have called for more volunteers and donations, and new programs have emerged to help struggling pet owners, like pet food pantries and temporary pet foster families.

How else do animals experience the effects of human-based inequality? What else can we do to minimize the impact of inequality on animals and their humans?


What a wonderful article. It's so meaningful and acknowledge

This article really opened my eyes to how much our economic struggles impact animals.

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