Having a dog is excellent for your health. For at least half of the roughly 50,000 years that modern humans have existed, it’s been with dogs wagging by our side. And long before we started breeding dogs specifically as companions—from manicured lapdogs to professionally trained service dogs—their survival depended on being finely attuned to the moods and behaviors of the humans they joined on hunts. In the course of domestication, dogs became natural support systems for humans.
It’s no surprise, then, that modern science recognizes the benefits they have to our moods. Dogs have been shown to improve stress and lower blood pressure, and especially to increase physical activity in people who might otherwise be sedentary. Widely deployed, dogs can even help lower personal, professional, and governmental medical costs. Consider canines a public health tool, in a sense: As more Americans adopt dogs, we have the potential to become a healthier nation as a result.
Like many health preventatives, dogs are expensive. Dog food prices are on the rise. Group classes for basic obedience training average around $50 per hour. Training a dog for support or therapy purposes—that is, turning a dog into a specialized intervention for a health ailment—is even more expensive. The highest expense, though, is the one over which owners have the least control: vet care. Routine visits can cost between $700 and $1,500 per year, between doctors’ fees and vaccines. And then there are emergencies. The majority of American dog owners today cannot afford emergency vet care. It’s no wonder that emergency pet surgeries are such a popular GoFundMe category.
Given that the world is becoming an increasingly stressful place (with which dogs are uniquely positioned to help!), I would like to propose that the time is right for universal vet care.
Of course, we should have universal medical care for humans, too. Given a choice for one or the other, people need their medical bills taken care of first—no question. But our politicians clearly are not going to agree on health care reform anytime soon, given that it’s one of the most politically divisive topics in the country. Dogs, on the other hand, are something people seem to agree on across the political spectrum. If researchers agree that dogs make for a healthier America, and Americans’ love of dogs bridges the political divide, then health care reform for our pets could be the way toward a more unified conversation about healthier lives for all of us.
The similarities between human and pet health care are hard to miss. The pet insurance industry, like its human counterpart, is somewhat broken. Since the start of the pandemic, it has enjoyed double-digit growth as families try to plan for emergency situations for their furry loved ones. But most insurance doesn’t cover routine visits, vaccines, or preexisting conditions, thus being of little help to most owners who adopt dogs with special needs or those who are looking for a new plan for their ill pet. Plans that provide more comprehensive coverage can cost up to $155 per month. To add to the insult, regardless of the price point, monthly premiums for dogs are double those for cats. Dogs are both more susceptible to diseases and easier to care for than cats.
The most important question rescues and shelters pose to potential adopters is: Can you afford to take your dog to the vet? To prove that one is able to take care of a dog’s medical needs, one pays a rehoming or adoption fee, which run around $500 on average. (Four hundred thousand dogs are euthanized per year in the U.S. Overcrowded shelters should be lowering the barriers to adopting dogs—not making people prove that they have spare cash lying around.) The irony of this is that people who stand to benefit the most from dogs are the ones who are struggling to maintain basic stability, and who may have a harder time paying the fee and for subsequent care. Data show extraordinary success with the introduction of dog programs into just about any “at risk” population. Prison animal programs across the country are thriving and boast much lower recidivism among inmates who worked with animals in training programs. Dog training programs are used to rehabilitate at-risk youth, and therapy dogs work in long-term care environments like nursing homes. Service dogs famously help alleviate everything from depression to PTSD to addiction. But if you’re already managing your own ailments, it’s unfair that you have to pay for those of a therapy dog as well—it’s like finding out that your insurance doesn’t cover the medication your doctor has prescribed you.
It’s increasingly clear just how much dog owners get out of having their dogs always nearby. People are buying high-tech pet cameras in order to stay connected while apart, and the dog portrait industry is booming. Some are buying homes just to give their dogs better lives. Many are fighting for more and more dog-friendly environments, from the workplace to college dorms to subways (and who can forget the short sliver of time when emotional support animals were allowed on flights?). Many people refer to their pets as family and see themselves as their pets’ parents. Affordable veterinary care should be the next frontier of dogs’ expanding importance in our lives.
Yes, there are many expenses when it comes to dogs—from kibble to dog walker services— and we don’t all need that pet portrait or the latest fancy dog food delivered to our door. But those who want to live with dogs shouldn’t ever have to lose sleep worrying about how to cover their beloved pets’ medical bills. Life with a dog should not be a luxury.