This year, Americans will spend about $9.8 billion on healthcare for their pets, up from $7.2 billion five years ago. According to the New York Times, New York’s leading pet hospitals offer CT scans, MRIs, dialysis units and even a rehab clinic featuring an underwater treadmill, perhaps for the amphibians in one’s household. A professor who consults to pet health facilities on communication issues justified these huge investments in pet health to me by pointing out that pets are, after all, “part of the family.”
Well, there’s another category that might reasonably be considered “part of the family.” True, they are not the ideal companions for the busy young professional: It can take two to three years to housebreak them; their standards of personal hygiene are lamentably low, at least compared with cats; and large numbers of them cannot learn to sit without the aid of Ritalin.
I’m talking about children, of course, and while I can understand why many people would not want one of these hairless and often incontinent bipeds in their homes, it is important to point out that they can provide considerable gratification. There’s a 3-year-old in my life, for example, who gives me many hours a week of playful distraction from the pressures of work. No matter how stressed I am, she can brighten my mood with her quavering renditions of the ABC song or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
She has health insurance, as it turns out, and generally high-quality care. But you can never be too sure. So I went to the website of VPI Pet Insurance, one of the nation’s largest animal companion health insurers, to see what kind of a policy I could get for her. In the application form, I listed her as a 3-year-old mixed-breed dog–a description made somewhat plausible by the fact that her first words, spoken at the remarkable age of 10 months, were “ruf ruf” and “doggie outside.” When I completed the form and clicked to get a quote, I was amazed to see that I can get her a “premium” policy for a mere $33 a month.
But, you may be wondering, could a veterinarian handle common children’s ills? On the hopeful side, let me cite the case, reported in June by Bob Herbert of the New York Times, of Diamonte Driver, a 12-year-old boy who died recently from an abscessed tooth because he had no insurance and his mother could not afford $80 to have the tooth pulled. Could a vet have handled this problem? Yes, absolutely.
Or there’s the case of 14-year-old Devante Johnson, also reported by Herbert, who died when his health insurance ran out in the middle of treatment for kidney cancer. I don’t know exactly what kind of treatment he was getting, but I suspect that the $1.25 million linear accelerator for radiation therapy available at one of New York’s leading pet hospitals might have helped. The Times article also mentions a mixed breed named Bullwinkle who consumed $7,000 worth of chemotherapy before passing on to his reward. Surely Devante could have benefited from the same kind of high-quality pet care, delivered at a local upscale animal hospital.
It may seem callous to focus on children when so many pets go uninsured and without access to CT scans or underwater treadmills. But in many ways, children stack up well compared with common pets. They can shed real tears, like Vietnamese potbellied pigs. They can talk as well as many of the larger birds, or at least mimic human speech. And if you invest enough time in their care and feeding, they will jump all over you when you arrive at the door, yipping and covering your face with drool.
The Senate Finance Committee has approved a bill that would expand state health insurance coverage for children (S-CHIP) to include 3.2 million kids who are not now covered (but leaving about 6 million still uncovered). Bush has promised to veto this bill on the grounds that government should not be involved in health coverage. If he does veto the bill, the fallback demand should be: Open up pet health insurance to all American children now! Though even as I say this, I worry that the President will counter by proposing to extend euthanasia services to children who happen to fall ill.