Module 6: Integration of shelter and community healthcare programs for at-risk pets

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Barriers to accessible veterinary care include socioeconomic, transportation, geographic, and knowledge-based barriers. These barriers may force owners to make decisions that are not in the best interest of their pet’s well-being, including surrender to a shelter or even euthanasia. There is a compelling and urgent need for the animal welfare community and veterinarians to identify communities with at-risk pets, the barriers to veterinary care in these communities, and solutions for delivery of good healthcare to every pet, regardless of the owner’s socioeconomic and geographic status.

This module explores the lack of access to veterinary care in underserved communities and describes programs that are working to provide veterinary services to pets in these communities to keep them in their homes, not in a shelter. The module also identifies opportunities for shelter veterinarians to collaborate with community-based programs for provision of accessible and affordable healthcare for pets in need.

Access to Veterinary Care: What are the Barriers and Who is Impacted?

Lack of access to veterinary care is a complex societal problem with multiple underlying causes, and may be the most significant animal welfare crisis affecting pets in the US. More and more pet owners cannot obtain even routine wellness care such as vaccinations, parasite control and spay–neuter surgery.

The 2018 Access to Veterinary Care: Barriers, Current Practices and Public Policy Report documents the barriers that limit access to care for millions of pets in the US.

This report collates results of survey-based studies of 5,600 pet-owning households and 800 veterinarians across the US. Among pet owners, socioeconomic status and financial means are the most significant barriers to accessing veterinary care along with transportation challenges, not having appropriate equipment for transport to a clinic (e.g., carrier, leash), geographic location of veterinary clinics, and not knowing where to get care.

Among veterinarians, factors impacting the provision of accessible care include financial concerns (clinic operation costs, salary based on production, student debt), liability concerns if standards of care are not provided, workplace policies, and concern about negative pushback from colleagues. This report also identified how veterinarians’ attitudes on pet ownership may impact the provision of accessible care, specifically society’s role in providing care for underserved pet populations and who should have a pet. The most widely held view is that pet ownership is a privilege, not a right, and that only those who can afford proper care should have a pet. Far fewer veterinarians think that all people, regardless of socioeconomic status or ability to provide proper care, have the right to own a pet.

Highlights from the Access to Veterinary Care Report

  • 78 million dogs and 86 million cats in 80 million American households.
  • Nearly 25% of the pet-owning households representing 29 million dogs and cats were unable to access preventive healthcare for their pets due to inability to pay and/or lack of transportation.
  • 80% of the pet owners strongly agreed that their pet was a member of the family, reinforcing the strength of the human-animal bond.
  • 95% of veterinarians agreed that all pets deserve some level of veterinary care and that lack of access to veterinary care impacts pet owners’ mental and emotional health.
  • Most veterinarians agreed that for-profit clinics were not meeting the needs of all pets.
  • Many private practice vets reported they had the heart to serve pets in need but could not afford to offer lower cost services due to student loan debt and rising costs of clinic operations.
  • Less than 50% of the veterinarians agreed that ‘society has a responsibility to help poor people and their pets’.
  • Only about 25% agreed that ‘everyone regardless of circumstances should be able to own a pet’.

In summary, there are significant barriers to access to veterinary care for millions of dogs and cats in the US, not only due to the costs of medical care and transportation issues, but also in part due to biases and stereotypes about how pet owners in communities of color and low-income communities value their pets. We should recognize that providing adequate care for pets at risk is a societal problem, not a personal one. Providing access to care for all pets is the veterinarian’s professional responsibility and commitment to the human-animal bond. As veterinarians and animal welfare advocates, this is our duty of care.


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