Erin King, civic life coordinator for Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, unpacked the history of pet policy and its complex ties to racism and housing inequity in an Oct. 24 Civic Life Lunch hosted by Jonathan M. Tisch College.
King is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate specializing in human-animal interaction and has been a civic life coordinator since 2017. She earned her Master of Science at Tufts where she studied the link between animal cruelty and other forms of domestic abuse.
King opened her presentation, titled “From Vet Care to Pet Fees: Race, Equity & Pet Perception,” by acknowledging her identity as a white woman in the field.
“I briefly want to talk about and recognize my own identity in this conversation as a cis[gender] white woman, talking about my race and identity,” King said. “It’s really important when consuming research and information to think about identity and how it plays a part in this conversation and [my] role.”
King outlined the benefits of pets for humans, noting that pets can be beneficial to owners both in emotional support and in mitigating feelings of isolation.
She then dove into the potential barriers to pet ownership. With limited insurance options, veterinary care can be expensive, and often the costs are placed directly on the consumer.
King noted that veterinarians are one of the least diverse medical professions in the United States. According to a 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 91.4% of working veterinarians are white.
“That has lasting implications because it is a field that does not have diversity,” King said. “We see that it could lead to resource deserts or care deserts in communities where there are not minority doctors present or practicing.”
King discussed research that the Tufts Equity Research Group has done surrounding accessible vet care and its connection to pet owner demographics and financial fragility. The study found that race, education and financial fragility all predicted accessibility to veterinary care for pet owners.
In the study, scores were based on those three factors and questions the respondents answered surrounding their access to vet care. White pet owners typically had the highest scores, saying that they could easily access care, while Hispanic pet owners had the lowest scores of access to care.
King shifted the focus of the discussion towards housing inequity. While the Fair Housing Act protects homeowners and renters from discrimination on the basis of race, sex and other categories, she pointed out that pet ownership is not a protected status.
“This means that there [are] no federal regulations limiting the number of pet fees or pet rental security deposits that a landlord can place on you,” King said.
King showed a graph from a study conducted in the state of Texas across different apartments and communities comparing the percentage of people of color in rental housing and the amount of money paid in pet fees. The study found that the higher the percentage of people of color in a rent-paying community, the higher the pet fees.
“It’s an example of pet fees being used as a way to discriminate against certain types of pet owners and pets themselves,” King said.
Concluding her presentation, King stated that diversity needs to increase in the veterinary, animal welfare and sheltering fields, and access to resources needs to be improved. Cost, language barriers, health literacy, transportation and the lack of client-centered care plans are existing hurdles people have to jump to access veterinary care, she said.
King also highlighted the need to work on healing the relationship between animal welfare organizations and BIPOC communities.
“Animal welfare organizations aren’t seen as a resource in a lot of communities,” King said. “They’re seen as someone that will come in from the outside and take [their] animal instead of a resource that could potentially help with veterinary care.”
The integration of human-animal interaction research and professionals in policy and democratic processes was also something important for King.
“We can say that the human-animal bond has a potential to bring people together,” King said. “It has a potential to really unite and have cohesion through the community. With that, we need to have resources that are more equitable for everyone and equitable for [all] pet owners.”