Pets and Poverty

New Rules…

In the U.S., it should be mandatory for prospective pet owners to open an escrow-type account devoted to pet care and to meet minimum income guidelines. Sentimentality aside, unless your household is bringing home the median income or above and you’re living below your means, you’re poor (me, too). And, I’m thinking poor/low-income people (me, again) shouldn’t own pets.

My pet came into my home during a unique time. I had recently relocated to a new community, my landlord mentioned it would be okay to have a dog, I had heard from by boss that the travel my job required was no longer necessary, my doctor suggested getting a dog as motivation to walk daily, and I realized that talking to animals is considered perfectly sane while chatting with kitchen appliances is not.

Still, I didn’t jump into pet ownership. I did some research, costed out the animal-scenario, had some extra funds in my budget, and adopted a medium-sized mixed-breed adult-dog from a local Humane Society. Instead of finding the fluffy pocketbook-pet I could carry around discreetly in department stores, I selected the dog that was at the top of the shelter’s “kill list.” She came with glowing references.

We both aged about 10 years together and still managed to maintain a peaceful co-existence. She barked at strange noises and I said “thank you.” I fed her and changed her water and hauled her to the veterinarian for annual check-ups. She chased lizards and roosters in the yard, both of us knowing full well she wouldn’t catch either. Although she knew she wasn’t allowed on the furniture, I would sometimes find her fur on the sofa and lecture her while imagining her sprawled in my spot on the sofa, Roku remote in hand, streaming old Lassie reruns while I toiled.

She was always happy to see me and required very little maintenance.

Change changes us

Then family called and I opted out of the busy world of work in order to spend more time with my son who has some mental and physical challenges and with my grandsons. The changes impacted both of us.

I underestimated the difference between the fitness level required to maintain a desk job and the herculean level required to track and maintain a non-hostile relationship with two young grandsons. (Note that this could be accomplished by allowing them to watch television or stream programs on their tablets, but I opted for the High Road of a heady mix of outdoor time, quasi-educational time, fun physical time, and goofing off. The High Road requires things like playing games, making up games, spending time in parks, supporting attendance at swimming and other lessons, and arranging periodic play-dates.)

My fur buddy adapted well, by all appearances, until she got sick. I never planned for her to get sick.

The transition in my professional life had some positive points but my income fell precipitously. And although at least one person suggested returning my adopted dog to the Humane Society, I invested a lot in shipping her from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to the western US desert. The new terrain and creatures (yay! Still lizards to chase!) entertained her and we seemed to both slowly adjust to new weather (hello coat, good-bye humidity). She loved living around the grandchildren, would run circles around them in total joy or sit in the shade and watch them on the trampoline as if she plotted to join them.

Forgot to “plan for the worst”

And then my dog got sick. Not normal sick like worms or some passing mild allergy. She got sick. Seizures sick. Barely able to walk sick. Dizzy, walking in circles. Life threatening fever. Occasionally emitting a supernatural sound that mixed a loud out-of-tune cello with a wolf’s howl and frightened my eldest grandson who, nevertheless, ran as fat as any 6-year-old could toward the noise to offer help.

The first night she felt sick, I awakened at 3 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. The next night I got no sleep at all. With my personal cash flow statement showing $400 in savings and $134 in grocery funds, I called an emergency 24 hour pet hospital and told them she was having trouble breathing, panting, periodically losing the ability to walk, urinating during episodes when she stiffened and collapsed. They said to bring her in right away. I told them I had little funds and almost no credit.

“Bring her in,” they insisted, so I carried her to the car and drove in the dark and fog to an emergency pet hospital in the wee small hours of the morning.

The emergency folks took her back and reported she had a fever and a “neurological” issue, but they weren’t sure exactly what. They had another emergency so wouldn’t be able to examine her further or do any tests for about an hour. They welcomed us to wait or offered to provide a list of local veterinarians who might be able to see her later the same day. Since dawn was approaching, we opted to leave to find a local veterinarian who might be able to help.

We had about 2 hours before local offices opened, so I napped and then started calling local daytime businesses. I took her to a popular local pet hospital that promised she would be seen though we might have to wait an hour for a walk-in appointment.

Because of her condition, they took her in quickly and reported her fever had gone up to 105.5 and required immediate care so they started an IV. The total cost of the day would have been $1,000 or more if I opted for the testing they wanted to do, but my budget remained limited, the IV and fluids to bring down her temperature seemed most pressing, and the costs of the full diagnostic work so expensive it was far out of my financial league and, short of seeking out a loan-shark, out of the question…

At the same time, I remember people I knew from my work world who were houseless and had pets. The animals gave them a focus outside themselves, unlimited affection, amusement, and sometimes a reason to live. More than one person turned down housing because the landlord wouldn’t accept animals and a few postponed their own life-saving medical treatment while seeking someone to care for their animals.

Pets are a part of our families in this culture.

And there it is. Animals provide comfort, acceptance, and appreciation with very few expectations in return.

Sitting at my desk near sunset, watching the hummers flit around the hummingbird feeder outside, I’m not sorry I adopted the sweet dog from the top of the kill list, but I wish she could have a more dignified story now and I wish I had thought to plan for the cost of her care as she aged. I wonder what she would have chosen, this sweet canine that often awakened me at night as she slept, her legs moving as if in a gallop, chasing moonbeams or mo’o.[i] She is the same sweet girl, and not the same at all. And I miss her, though she’s still here, and watching her suffer breaks my heart.


[i] A term used in Hawai`i to refer to lizards, like anole and gecko.

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