Affordable Veterinary Options Can Be Hard to Find in Animal Loving Denver

Benji. Photo by Ernest Gurulé

For millions of Americans, there no longer is any waiting: their ‘prince’ has come. Socially, we might fight like dogs and cats over politics, sports, or religion, but our pets keep us grounded. Very simply, we love them, they love us.

But there can be unfortunate limits to this bond. The reality is that too often, too many of us have to part ways with our furry valentines because we can’t afford basic pet health care. A veterinary bill for things as basic as a broken leg, a condition that can cost as much as $4,000, is out of reach. Basic dental care? A $300-400 fee is common. When a Denver metro area efficiency apartment can average $1,300 a month vet costs are often luxuries. 

It’s estimated that 30 percent of pet owners, because of financial realities including housing insecurity, fall into this category. Moreover, the book Underdogs: Pets, People and Poverty by Arnold Arluke and Andrew Rowan estimates that nearly 70 percent of pets in poverty have never visited a vet.

Colorado State University veterinarian Dr. Jheanine Castañeda, who was born in Cali, Colombia and grew up in Miami, Florida, says she grew up around animals. Her journey into the animal world began during elementary school when her mother bought her a pair of hamsters. “They told us they were both boys… but one ended up being a girl,” she chuckled. Three litters and fifty pups later, her mother banished them to other homes.

Her childhood, which included a period of ‘pet poverty,’ and her training have provided her both empathy and insight about the oftentimes painful choices some people are forced to make. Her first dog died of Parvo, an often deadly canine virus. “We never took him to the vet.” Vets were a luxury.

A Colombia native, Castañeda’s introduction to pet poverty is bookended today with the reality of ‘vet deserts,’ in the Denver Metro – areas in geographic isolation from not only affordable pet clinics, but vets altogether. She’s seen the heartbreaking choices people cursed by low income or the wrong zip code are regularly forced to make.

Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea, historic communities dominated by low income, elderly, and immigrant populations, are home to many trapped in this social and geographic triangle. Globeville resident Steven Brian and his daughter China share a row home and were out taking advantage of a warm December day to walk their dogs when they stopped to chat about this challenge. “When I did a search, I didn’t find any [veterinarians] in the immediate area,” says Brian, “but even if you find one close to you, it’s the price.” Then he added something else: supply and demand. Demand for services outstrips the supply of vets. “That’s the key. You have to look all over the place.”

In fact, the nation’s 32 veterinary medical schools mint only about 3,200 new animal doctors a year, which falls well short of what the country needs. A subset of that number, and one national vet organizations are trying to meet, includes the shortage of African American and Latino vets. Basically, it’s a real-time animal care crisis.

This reality is reinforced by a nation growing older. Older vets are retiring, while at the same time, younger staff are leaving the field after less than five years’ service. It’s burnout, they say; a condition only exasperated by the pandemic.

Madison Vollbracht, a vet technician, told CNN that last Christmas, “there was a day when everything was dying.” Despite a heavy workload on one of her toughest days, “I had only discharged one patient that day. Everything else was euthanized.” Sixteen animals brought in for treatment that day never made it home. 

In Colorado and elsewhere, pet adoptions soared during the pandemic. As they did, the workload on vets, already growing heavy, grew heavier. Apparently, not everyone who adopted understood the cost of pet ownership, nor had the income for treatments.

There are animal clinics with sliding scale rates, offering services based on income, but they are both rare and often booked for weeks, even months. In Denver, The Dumb Friends League provides free spaying and neutering plus one free vet visit with each adoption.

Clinics say they understand the cloud hanging over pet owners and try to provide as much consideration as possible. But office rents, state of the art equipment, payrolls and the college debt that new vets bring to the job, which the American Veterinary Medical Association says averages over $150,000, ties their hands. 

If a pet owner can’t afford the treatment, said Castañeda, she’ll sit and privately chat with them, frequently in Spanish. If the pet owner is on that ever-growing financial island, she’ll advising them as thoughtfully as she can. It’s not always a solution, but it’s hope. “I think there’s a lot we can do in certain cases to make dogs comfortable,” she tells them, as reassuringly as possible. Other times, “I try to hold their hand…I just try to ground them and say, ‘it’s probably had a wonderful life.’” 

But something new for pet owners, a financial lifeline not always available, is gaining in popularity. “We have pet insurance,” says North Denver resident Holly Witulski. It’s peace of mind but also “an added monthly expense.” If nothing else, it’s also security. “Our dog is our second child,” she says. If a choice had to be made, they’d make sacrifices for their ‘second child,’ Willis. They’d put the treatment “on a credit card and pay it off if we didn’t have insurance.”

Just as Witulski affectionately identifies her pet as family, so too do many others. The late American humorist Will Rogers may have summed things up best: “If there aren’t dogs in heaven,” he said, “then maybe I want to go where they went.”

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