Charlie, a beautiful golden-haired Labrador Retriever, dozes on a blanket in a waiting room in São Paulo, among dozens of others. Dogs and cats. He has never been so sick. First there was the rash on his mouth. The vet suspected lupus and recommended a biopsy. Kelly Queiroz, 31, paid for her pet’s appointment with a private doctor, but the test was impossible for her: “It was 200 reais,” she says, a cost of $40. It cost too much. So the Brazilian decided to wait and see if the dog improved. He got worse. “He stopped eating, his feet swelled up,” recalls Queiroz. She paid for pet insurance, but it turned out that initially it only covered emergencies. Charlie was sick, but it wasn’t that bad. A co-worker at the museum where Queiroz works told her about this free public veterinary hospital. She was surprised and relieved.
Now, here he is, lining up for Charlie to get an ultrasound and an IV at the North São Paulo Municipal Veterinary Hospital. The dog just had blood drawn, and he has an appointment with the dermatologist, but he still doesn’t have a clear diagnosis. “Just knowing that he is not serious, I feel relieved. And the peace of mind of receiving treatment without having to juggle impossible payments. Dr. Giulia has treated us wonderfully. I even cried,” Queiroz said last Wednesday. Ten hours earlier, at midnight, he lined up with Charlie and a blanket. Demand is enormous, so receiving care requires patience, which deters those who can afford private treatment.
Low-income neighbors, those who cannot afford a clinic in America The richest and most populous city in the United States.they are the priority users of the four veterinary hospitals in São Paulo, a city with 12 million inhabitants, 1.9 million dogs and more than 800,000 cats, numbers that will only increase in the census that will be released soon.
It is a free public service with an impressive range of specialties, from ophthalmology to orthopedics, dentistry and oncology. In these corridors, a dog with an amputated leg crosses paths with one with diabetes, a cat undergoing cancer treatment and an army of young veterinarians and nurses dressed in colorful bandanas. The premises are sober and sober, but with an intensive care unit and three operating rooms.
Dr. Daniel Leite da Silva directs the network of veterinary hospitals in the metropolis. Why did the city decide to spend public money on this? Because, he explains, it creates a virtuous circle for pets and their companions: “We prevent animals from being abandoned. It allows us to maintain epidemiological monitoring to prevent zoonoses —diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans— and we help take care of the emotional health of guardians who watch over the well-being of their pets”.
With a team of 145 veterinarians and almost 100 assistants, last year the four hospitals attended 130,000 visits. The budget for this year reaches 27 million reais (5.3 million dollars).
São Paulo opened its first municipal veterinary hospital in 2012. Their experience has inspired cities like Brasília, Salvador de Bahía and Guarulhos. Similar centers exist in Mexico and Argentina, and El Salvador has just inaugurated one. Brazilian users are surprised to hear that such services do not exist in rich Europe. Like Micaela de la Maza, creator of srperro.com, a website about dogs, says: “In Europe they don’t exist. At the end of 2022, the first public hospital in Rome was announced. That ad received a lot of media attention and the issue has become part of Spanish electoral campaigns.
In Brazil, as in the rest of the world, pets went from being considered property to being seen as members of the family. Dr. Da Silva notes how this change is reflected even in terminology: “When I began to study, in 2003, we called them owners, then guardians or caregivers, and now some call themselves biological parents. [in a play on words on bicho, the Portuguese word for animal].” Like almost all the vets and nurses consulted at the center, he has his own pets: two cats and a dog. His work also encompasses adoption programs and surgical castration. “There is no indiscriminate euthanasia here,” he says.
Free veterinary care can also be understood as a measure to mitigate inequality in Brazil, a country proud of having created the largest human public health system on the planet. Neither the US, China nor India have anything like it. But the gap between rich and poor is stark, and pets experience the gap, too.
São Paulo is a city where tens of thousands of people live on the streets, while powerful executives avoid traffic jams by traveling in air taxis. The tramps of the megalopolis you can bring your dogs to the free vet thanks to public services, while the wealthiest, when they go on vacation, leave their dogs in five-star hotels with swimming pools and saunas. The city is dotted with gigantic 24-hour shops selling everything imaginable to feed and care for an animal. Dog daycare centers have cameras that allow owners to monitor their furry friends from the gym or work. Walking dogs in a baby carriage, or leaving them in the hands of a dog walker, is common in privileged neighborhoods.
No barking is heard in the hospital waiting room. Professionals have performed operations as serious as spinal fractures, but they tend to deal with cases of low or medium complexity. They do not have the latest technologies. As chief veterinarian Da Silva says, comparing his resources to those he saw at the University of Florida Veterinary Hospital, “care there is for those who can pay. Here we try to reach the largest possible population.” He does the math: “With the cost of one CT scan, we do five x-rays.”
Teo, the cat of Maria Zuleni dos Santos, who works in a bakery, is 11 years old and has intestinal cancer. He waits for the oncologist in his baby carrier. Zyon is waiting to see the general practitioner. “Prince, tell mommy something,” Adriana Costa tells her dog, who stopped eating and drinking last weekend. Costa and her partner came here because a few days of hospitalization cost them almost $100, and each appointment costs $40, an impossible rate with her salary as a cleaner at a clinic. While she talks, she pays attention to the announcements. When he hears the nurse call, “Zyon and Adriana, you can come back, Zion and Adriana,” she will carry him in her arms to the appointment.
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