JustAnswer PixelPaws and Effect

There’s a lot more to most situations where low-income people are fundraising or borrowing or whatever to pay their pet’s veterinary expenses than most of the self-righteous jerks think about. Photo by JaneA Kelley

My fundraising efforts to get my new pal, Wallace (that’s him up there in the photo), a dental have certainly brought out the best–and the worst–in the social media community. And of course, some of those people are members of Team Poor People Shouldn’t Have Pets, and boy, are they loud and proud about their opinions!

Well, I think the whole poor people shouldn’t have pets thing is BS. And I think Team Poor People Shouldn’t Have Pets is composed of 100% pure self-righteous and privileged people who think that when someone’s pet is having a life-and-death emergency, that’s the perfect time to shame them for not having $5,000 to drop on their pet’s emergency surgery.

Are you on Team Poor People Shouldn’t Have Pets? Congratulations! You’re a jerk!

Yup, I said it. And if I were standing in front of you, I’d use much stronger language than “jerk.”

If poor people shouldn’t have pets, neither should anyone else

Poor people are so stigmatized and demonized in the U.S. that you’d think they were responsible for, say, committing acts of genocide! But the truth is that the vast majority of families, no matter how large the salaries that contribute to the household, are barely getting by. It was bad before, but Reaganomics was the weapon that truly destroyed the middle class in America.

In a world where you’re increasingly either a billionaire or a wage slave, most Americans, even many who earn six-figure salaries, are behind the 8-ball. A 2024 CNBC article says that nearly half of Americans have less than $500 in savings accounts, and 60 percent having $500 or less in their checking accounts. Five hundred bucks won’t even get you a spay where I live, let alone any high-level, emergent care.

At the same time, only 11.6 percent of the U.S. population lives below the poverty line, according to U.S. government data aggregation site USA Facts.

So, that 50 percent of Americans with little to no savings is much greater than the percentage of Americans who live below the poverty line. While the poor Americans are part of that number, they share the dubious distinction of lack of savings with teachers, cops, software engineers, call center workers, marketers, nurses, and probably even doctors.

In addition, the ranks of poor people who “shoudn’t have pets” have been vastly increased as the economic havoc of the pandemic endures and people become disabled by long COVID or lose their jobs and have trouble finding another one. That is the position I’ve found myself in. I lost my job last summer due to a disability that my employer made a good-faith effort to accommodate, but we just couldn’t make it work. I thought it would be pretty straightforward to find a job, especially in a market with so many openings and such a low unemployment rate. Spoiler: it hasn’t been.

You “poor people shouldn’t have pets” types are much closer to homelessness than you are to being wealthy, so maybe you should shut your mouths and buy yourselves some compassion. But wait, you can’t! Because you don’t have enough money in the bank, because you’re just like the rest of us who are struggling to get by!

An orange tabby cat looks down from atop vintage wooden kitchen cabinets.

Wallace hasn’t let his dental pain stop him from enjoying the view from atop the cabinets. Photo by JaneA Kelley

I was a ‘poor people’ who had pets, and I’m so grateful

This blog exists because poor people had pets.

My family was not wealthy after my parents divorced, but we got by. Things changed for the worse when my father’s child support payments just … stopped. With one month’s notice. Then we were truly poor. Like food stamps, AFDC (now TANF), and Medicaid poor.

And we had pets. And those pets got enough to eat, and when they needed a vet, my mother found the money to bring them to one. This jibes well with a 2022 episode of the Veterinary Team Training podcast, where the host discussed statistics around low-income and homeless people and their pets. One of the key findings was that the rates of disease and injury are no higher in the pets of low-income or homeless owners than they are in pets of wealthier folks. The lower-income folks didn’t necessarily take their pets in every single year for a checkup, but when a vet was needed, they figured it out.

But honestly, I know plenty of wealthy people who don’t bring their cat to the vet unless the cat is sick, either. Why is that okay for rich people but not for poor people? I’m waiting …

The cats I shared my life with during my family’s years of dire poverty gave me unconditional love in a way that my mother was never able to provide. They got me through high school, through verbal abuse and emotional neglect, through having my boundaries trodden on repeatedly, and so on. Should I not have been able to experience emotional safety because my mother was poor? If you think the answer to this question is yes, you’re a jerk.

You know who else is often poor? Disabled people. Disabled people have pets and service animals for a whole variety of reasons, including emotional support. Emotional support animals don’t have the same rights as service animals, but they are just as crucial in the lives of the people who have them.

It was the experience of poverty with pets during my teen years that led to my obsessive interest in all things cat. And that obsessive interest is why Paws and Effect exists. I want to help you and your cat live your best lives, and I want to do so with compassion and understanding.

That’s one of the reasons that when I talk about cat illnesses, I include information like “if you’re on a budget, you will absolutely need to do this test, but you can discuss x, y, and z with your vet” and give you some ideas of where to look for funding if your credit isn’t the greatest.

An orange tabby cat stands on a high shelf of a cat tree. Light shines into the room from a window on the cat's right.

Wallace says it’s just silly to believe poor people shouldn’t have pets! Photo by JaneA Kelley

Poor people deserve to experience the benefits of pet ownership

Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they’re more likely to be abusive, less likely to provide the care a pet needs, or more likely to fail to meet a pet’s basic needs than a wealthier person. Ask me about my wealthy animal communication client who had a Sheltie (Shetland sheepdog) she kept crated for about 22 hours a day, and then wondered why the dog wasn’t behaving well.

The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) worked with Mental Health America to crate an infographic about the mental health benefits of pets. Our cat companions help to alleviate stress, reduce loneliness, improve mood and fight depression, improve well-being, and provide long-term help for people with mental health challenges. As a person who is neurodivergent and lives with bipolar disorder, I can say that my own experience confirms HABRI’s findings. My cats have given me a reason to live when nothing else could.

Is there some reason you think poor people are less worthy of experiencing these health benefits? If the answer is yes, you’re a jerk.

Animal nonprofits have gotten the memo. Why haven’t you?

One of the most wonderful changes I’ve seen in the animal rescue world over the last 10 years or so is the growing body of shelters that believe it’s better to keep a cat in a loving home, and if money is making that difficult or impossible, they need to help.

The cat rescue where I volunteer, for example, has a pet food and supply pantry (for cats and dogs) and monthly low-cost wellness clinics where people can buy flea control and other home care supplies at an affordable price. Other shelters in my area host low-cost spay/neuter and vet care clinics, and we even have a free clinic for homeless and low-income pet owners.

These organizations know that poor people are human beings with inherent dignity and that poor people need and deserve to share the unique love and bond with an animal friend. Frankly, if I had to choose, I’d rather be a homeless person’s cat than Elon Musk’s cat any day of the week! Why? Because I’d know that homeless person cares about me, and the android man-baby doesn’t care about anyone but himself. In my opinion. Allegedly.

An orange tabby cat's head pokes out from between two knees clad in pink pajamas with cats on them.

Wallace is a sweetheart any time, any day, any weather. He even liked my pajamas! Photo by JaneA Kelley

Conclusion: be the solution, not the problem

Every human being, no matter their socioeconomic status, benefits from living with pets. I think poor shaming is a really crappy look any time at all, but it’s especially crappy when privileged people decide to sh*t all over people who don’t have privilege when they ask their community for help with their beloved pet’s care.

If you want to solve the problem of unwanted pets having no place to go, you’re going to have to accept that some of those pets are going to go into the hands of poor people. Instead of shaming and criticizing, why don’ you use your privilege for good? Instead of tsk-tsking at people because they don’t feed their cats in gold-plated dishes, try opening a pet food pantry in your community–or maybe as an add-on to one of your local food banks. Have Meals on Wheels and other services that work with elders bring pet food with them, too … because you know who else is often poor? Old people!

Veterinarians can’t give away all their services, but if you use your keyboard warrior skills to bring low-cost spay/neuter or other vet care to your town, you can be part of the solution rather than one of the jerks who feels compelled to judge others’ lives without all the facts.

And to the person who commented on my TikTok video about Wallace: you’re a jerk! Fortunately, I’m in a pretty good place with my mental health at the moment, so it didn’t send me into a tailspin. I know I’m a responsible cat caretaker, and so does my vet, and that’s what matters. I’m relatively immune to the storm troopers of shaming, but many others aren’t so lucky, and those shaming comments hit really hard in a time where the person is already experiencing a crisis.

Please be kind and compassionate to every pet lover who’s in a crisis situation. You’re a lot closer to being homeless yourself than you are to being a billionaire, Act with compassion now, so that when stuff does fall apart for you, you’ll have a compassionate community to rally around you in your time of need.