Social distancing and quarantine has been hard on a lot of us. We miss seeing friends in person and we’ve all looked for ways to make our quarantine less solitary, no matter how unorthodox the method. I, for example, have taken to befriending the daddy long-legs spider in my bathroom, in the hopes that our acquaintanceship leads to a Charlotte’s Web-type situation. (Do not do this. It’s a trap.)
Others have taken a more traditional approach: cats and dogs. In the wake of several states’ stay-at-home orders, many shelters have been able to place all their animals into adopted homes. While these new families are cause to celebrate, the long-term care of these animals is less certain. The U.S. unemployment rate has gone up dramatically due to the pandemic and veterinary bills are notoriously expensive regardless of whether you have pet insurance. If we do not want to see people abandoning their adopted comrades or see their premature deaths due to lack of care, we need to consider Veticare for All, a universal veterinary care program that would provide a myriad of mental and physical health benefits. Veticare for All may also broaden public support for universal healthcare.
In some ways, the pet insurance market is—if you can believe it—even crueler and less regulated than the human healthcare system. The government has some, if very limited, ways of intervening in the market to cover people through Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP. Since there is no equivalent in pet insurance, you are at the mercy of Adam Smith’s grubby invisible hand or your friend with a suspicious looking ziplock bag filled with unlabelled medicine. How many vet clinics are near you and where you are located geographically are also factors in the free market of veterinary care. A vet clinic in a larger city might be more expensive than a clinic in a small town. On the other hand, big-city vets may have higher capabilities and better facilities in-house, which also contribute to cost.
Pet insurance plans tend to be expensive, to the point where—depending on the amount of care your animal needs during their lifetime—you might be better off paying out of pocket for veterinary care. According to a Consumers’ Checkbook study cited in the Washington Post, the average cost of lifetime care for a healthy dog with few health problems is $3,848—$5000 less expensive than 13 years of the cheapest pet insurance plan. On the other side, if your dog has a lot of health problems, your out-of-pocket costs are twice as high as the cheapest insurance plan. This has to do with how much your insurance plan reimburses vet clinics for two biggest drivers of cost: surgical procedures and laboratory tests. If your animal suffers an accident and is hit by a car, for example, emergency surgery is in the thousands of dollars and lab work that has to be sent out can cost several hundred dollars. The overall cost of these plans and how little they cover often lead people to give up pet insurance after a while: the average retention period is only three years.
Animals, like humans, typically have more health problems as they age. For that reason, insurance companies usually hike up their prices as pets grow older and less profitable. If a claim for a procedure is denied, the process to challenge that claim often resembles that of human health insurance. It takes hours of phone calls and bureaucratic nonsense that sometimes results in the insurance company still refusing to pay. Most people tend to buy insurance for their animals during their adolescent years to avoid being denied coverage due to a preexisting condition later on. This is perfectly legal. In human healthcare, discrimination on the basis of pre-existing conditions was only banned in 2014, but a recent Congressional investigation reveals that “junk” healthcare plans are still denying people with pre-existing conditions anyway.
It isn’t just pre-existing conditions of course: the United States is suffering from a complete healthcare failure in almost every respect. A single-payer Medicare for All system is essential, and including universal Veticare for All along with it would make our system to be more comprehensive, especially in regards to mental health. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 17 million adults in this country have experienced at least one “major depressive episode.” The coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated people’s mental health issues: data from the Census Bureau shows that 50 percent of adults have experienced a depressed mood during the pandemic, an increase from 25 percent in 2013-2014. A 2016 study demonstrated that pets provide a sense of security and routine that contributes to emotional and social support in people with long-term mental health issues. Good mental health stems not just from an absence of mental health disorders (itself a complex concept that may have a great deal to do with functioning under capitalism), but also developing proper coping mechanisms and support systems for depressive episodes we all might eventually experience in our lives. Having an animal companion helps in both regards.
There are some major challenges to implement Veticare for All on the federal level. One is our cultural attitudes towards animal rights. In November of 2019, Trump signed the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act, which makes intentional acts of animal torture federal crimes, demonstrating that the country has improved, at least a little, when it comes to animal welfare. However, while people might be substituting more vegetarian options in their meals, the number of self-identifying vegetarians and vegans has remained unchanged since 2012, according to a Gallup poll conducted in 2018. There is also still a large segment of the population that, while they feel sympathetic towards animals, have a limited imagination as to the rights they should be afforded. When it comes to Veticare for All, there may be an instinct to dismiss it as a mere “animal rights” issue.
Immediate material conditions play a role in the prioritization of animal rights. Research published in Human Rights Quarterly showed that people concerned about animal welfare were “disproportionately middle-class rather than poor.” Working class people who are struggling to afford food might not think of universal pet healthcare as a priority, and those burdened by high medical bills might not want to talk about animal healthcare until human healthcare has been solved.
Another challenge to Veticare for All is one that is all too familiar for single-payer advocates: organized capital. In the Human Rights Quarterly research mentioned earlier, states with large animal agriculture industries were less likely to enact animal welfare laws. Insurance companies can be expected to lobby just as hard to protect their financial interests when it comes to pets as well as when it comes to humans. A number of drugs have human/animal crossover and can be used to treat both populations depending on the dosage, so pharmaceutical companies also have a stake. Additionally, some private or corporate veterinary practices make good money and will not take kindly to having their profit margins eaten up.
Considering these challenges, how can we hope to implement Veticare for All? I do not believe that a moral argument in favor of this policy would be the most politically savvy strategy. Morality is incredibly subjective and people do not share a consensus as to what rights animals are entitled. Moral arguments have their place: for example, it is good to argue the morality of why our current system is so complicated, whether we should accrue debt from taking care of our animals, etc. It’s unfortunately true that centering the argument on animal rights can undermine the potential to attract supporters who have been turned off by public actions from animal rights activists, but still love animals and would relish the opportunity to have a pet. The coalition necessary to apply political pressure should include housing activists: many tenants do not have the right to keep animals in their apartments, and 5-10 percent of unhoused people own pets and have no means to pay for treatment. Discussions about animal rights are important, especially if we want to change cultural attitudes in this country long-term. However, to broaden support for Veticare for All, the argument has to be about the material concerns of humans.
Nationally, Veticare for All supporters will likely be outmatched by their opponents. The best political strategy might be to push for Veticare for All at the county/parish/city level, building power locally. Depending on the locality, there may already be infrastructure in place for this policy’s implementation. In Burlington, Vermont, the city already provides financial assistance to low-income families to get their animals spayed or neutered. In Los Angeles, the county partnered with a private mobile clinic to do the same. Large municipalities can therefore work with existing animal care facilities to compete in the marketplace with a public option since there are already funds to reimburse certain procedures. Voters can also urge city councils in their area to pass resolutions to affirm their support for universal veterinary care at the state and federal level, just as city councils have done all across the country when it comes to single-payer health care for humans. These may just seem like empty gestures, but they allow activists to more effectively apply political pressure to representatives who are out of touch with their constituents and push for much needed reforms.
There will also have to be a lot of serious discussion about which states would be immediately suitable for this policy as well. 71 percent of households in the state of Vermont own at least one pet; therefore, it would benefit most of the state. Only 53 percent of households in California own pets, but the state has a long history of passing animal welfare laws. In 2018, California voters passed Proposition 12, a law that sets minimum size requirements for pigs and calves, and also requires all eggs in the state to be from cage-free hens. A lot of the groundwork for this proposition was built by an earlier measure—Prop 2— which voters passed in 2008. Both of these states seem like good candidates in which to try out Veticare for All.
Some people might wonder why they should bother advocating for a policy that is potentially unpopular, and may not seem like a priority to many. But why should we continue to force people to choose between paying their rent and curing a beloved pet’s cancer? Why should we allow a system that is so dysfunctional to continue when things can be done more efficiently and benefit a greater number of people and animals? Being human can be a sometimes lonely experience and in the face of the pandemic, we need to come up with more innovative ways to make people feel less isolated. Including Veticare for All into universal healthcare could be a way we help both treat and prevent some of the problems of human loneliness. And it gets people thinking about just how many creatures in this world are worthy of care. In the late Terry Pratchett’s book Sourcery, the wizard Ipslore asks Death, “What is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?” Death responds, “Cats. Cats are nice.”