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Alisa Nelson spends time outside with her Shepherd-Husky mix Neetschy in Surrey, B.C., on Dec. 17. Ms. Nelson received support from cost-sharing program Better Together to help cover a $500 veterinary bill in the fall, which helped her keep the dog that has become a member of her family.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

On the mornings when depression would otherwise trap Alisa Nelson in bed, her dog, Neetschy, fetches her shoes, and forces her out into the world.

Their walks have made friends of neighbours, and improved her health. Since fostering and then adopting the Shepherd-Husky mix two years ago, Ms. Nelson has dropped 50 pounds. “If I didn’t have him,” says Ms. Nelson, who lives on disability with her mom in an apartment in Surrey, B.C., “my depression would be more than I could handle.”

But when Neetschy started throwing up after a walk this fall, and needed an emergency vet visit, the $500 bill would have been impossible for her to pay in full. So she called Emily Aono.

Ms. Aono is the human support co-ordinator for Better Together, a cost-sharing program in British Columbia that helps low-income families cover their vet bills. In the past, Ms. Nelson might have had to surrender Neetschy to a shelter if he needed expensive treatment, where he could hope to be “rescued” by a higher-income family. But this practice, says Ms. Aono, hurts both the pets and the humans who consider them family.

“The No. 1 issue in animal welfare right now isn’t actually intentional cases of harm and neglect,” says Ms. Aono. “It is an inadequate access to veterinary care.”

During the pandemic, pets became a hot commodity; now, with the cost of living rising, Canadians face the increasing financial burden of that four-legged family member. In 2021, the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association estimated the average annual cost in Canada of owning a dog, with food and pet insurance, at more than $3,500, and that doesn’t include unexpected care such as emergency surgery or cancer treatment.

That was also before inflation spiked. According to Statistics Canada, the price of dog food increased 11 per cent between October, 2021, and October, 2022. Across the country, according to Humane Canada, a national federation of animal welfare groups, pet food banks are seeing more demand. Shelters across the country are also back to prepandemic capacity, and report an increasing number of owners giving up pets for economic reasons.

Most Canadians are paying for the vet entirely out of pocket. According to a May report by the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, only 4.3 per cent of dogs and 1.2 per cent of cats are covered by some level of insurance. Some owners faced with massive vet bills have turned to online crowdfunding.

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Ms. Nelson says that if she didn't have her dog, her depression would be more than she could handle.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Better Together, says Ms. Aono, is meant for struggling owners with limited resources, and no other options. With participating vets providing a discount, the program covers 80 per cent of the bill, while clients pay the rest. Paws for Hope, the animal welfare foundation that funds the program, also runs a longer-term emergency foster service for low-income people who need someone to take their dog while they find housing, or get surgery.

“Some people won’t seek the help or get the treatment they need if it means they are going to lose their only family member,” says Ms. Aono, who also provides social support to the owner, helping clients find mental-health resources, or linking them with housing options. “If they’re struggling, it’s hard to provide proper pet care, and vice versa.”

The program, started in January, 2021, is still small with 145 clients and about 220 pets – a number limited by donations, not need, Ms. Aono says. Since last year, new requests from prospective owners doubled to about 200 a month – too many, she says, to maintain a waiting list.

She knows that some people will say you shouldn’t have a dog if you can’t afford one. But some of the program’s clients are people who bought pets when they had the financial resources, and then experienced an illness, job loss or bad luck. There’s the single mom going through chemotherapy; without a full salary, she needed help keeping the family’s dog. Another client was sleeping in his car in Vancouver during the heat wave in the summer of 2021, when his dog wandered off briefly and was taken to a local shelter, where the owner then couldn’t afford the fee to get him back. Ms. Aono covered the cost, and enrolled him in the program.

These cases are a reminder not to pass judgment without taking time to hear the full story. “There’s the misconception when you’re driving by and you see someone and you think, ‘That poor dog,’” said Ms. Aono. One client who had been living on the street told her about passersby who tried to buy his dog for $100 – even though the animal was well-fed, and bonded with his owner.

“That man was very in tune with his dog.” His pet was happy and well socialized, she says, more so than many dogs who spend hours home alone. “They just needed a little more support.”

Better Together is one of a number of programs across Canada that try to help-low income dog owners, including free wellness clinics and vet care subsidies. The combination of care for pets with social support for their human owners is modelled after a U.S. program called Align Care, piloted recently in 11 cities across the United States, and now running in Los Angeles.

Michael Blackwell, the director of the Program for Pet Health Equity at the University of Tennessee who started Align Care, says social programs are too often built around humans without considering who that person counts as family. Affordable housing options may not allow pets. Animal welfare services focus on the dog or cat, but ignore the stress and burdens on the owners. Take a beloved pet away from someone who is already lonely and marginalized, and what are you offering in their place? Dr. Blackwell asks. “Do we just let people get sicker and die earlier?”

When Alex MacRae acquired her two dogs and a cat, the 69-year-old in Penticton, B.C., was working full-time in tech sales. Vet bills were not a problem. But then her son got cancer, she left her job to look after him, inflation further strapped her low income and suddenly, her circumstances were different. “I just didn’t intend to be a senior living in a place where it costs $5 for a cauliflower,” she says. Meanwhile, her aging pets began to develop more costly health issues.

She came home with Robbie, her Australian Shepherd-Kelpie mix, when he was only 10 weeks old; he is now 12 years old, and while he requires medication for newly diagnosed diabetes, he is still thrilled by a tennis ball, and sleeps on her feet while she watches Netflix. She also has Radar, a rescued Dachshund-mix, and a cat named Kitty she acquired from her son.

Her pets saw her through the death of her son and the isolation of the pandemic. “If it wasn’t for my dogs making me laugh every day, I don’t know how I would have survived,” she says. Without the help of Better Together, she would face a devastating decision. “If I lost my animals, it would break my heart.” The support she receives “allows me to keep them in my life.”

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