How Far Should We Go To Save Our Pets?

One author’s take on the lengths pet owners will go to in order to save their pets.

The media recently found a new bone to chew when it comes to reporting on the veterinary service industry.

It involves hunting down the crazy ways in which we veterinarians manage to make our living, reporting the heck out of one or two impressive cases where it seems people will do almost anything for their pets, then juxtaposing these with what the expenses would amount to if, say, they were instead employed to feed a village of starving Ugandans.

After a July story in the Boston Globe, I call it the “How Far Should We Go to Save Our Pets?” pig’s foot—as in, there’s not a lot of meat there but it goes a long way to satisfying people’s appetite for sensational news on stupid human tricks.

This story played up the bizarre antics of one MIT professor’s quest to treat his pet goose Boswell’s leg cancer. Though the author ultimately exonerated the man on the grounds that he loves his goose as much as anyone does their dog or cat and, furthermore, went to great lengths to prove that Boswell was, indeed, personable enough to merit radiation therapy for his cancer, the implication was clear: Who the heck would spend $30,000 on a pet, much less a goose?

I can’t stomach the media when they attack veterinary medicine on the basis of our capacity to prey on the human-animal bond. As if we’re somehow at fault for our often amazing ability to keep cancer at bay.

Sure, cancer treatment is expensive. But that shouldn’t be the point. What Boswell’s owner chooses to do with his money is his business.

I’m testy on this point. Perhaps that’s because I’m racking up some debt to handle my own dog’s brainstem tumor in the same fashion Boswell’s is being treated.

My family, a crew that would never deign to comment on my choice of luxury vehicles, is intractable on the subject of my way-high “pet expenses” in the wake of my 10-year-old French bulldog’s radiation treatments—as if 18 fractions on a credit card amount to any more than a fancy upgrade package on the average American’s auto loan.

Why is it I don’t hear the starving Ugandans’ drumbeats in the distance when I read that Michigan’s going belly up over the U.S. citizenry’s decision to forgo those leather interiors and V-8 engines?

Could it be that some expenses—pet expenses, in particular—are not deemed culturally acceptable yet?

Then there was another July article in the New York Times Magazine to consider. Titled “Animal Pharm,” this piece caricatures the rise of psychoactive drugs to treat animal behavior disorders in a not-so-thinly veiled satire of American pharm-culture, the so-called “Prozac Nation” effect.

Again, pet owners engaged in responsible pet-owner behavior were poked fun at while respected veterinary behaviorists were made to play the fools alongside glossy Photoshopped images of pets in padded cells.

Sure, it’s obvious a veterinarian might cry foul over the disrespect afforded our profession in these instances. It’s easy for those of us in-the-know to identify the incongruities and ironies inherent to these stories—not to mention the hypocrisies they rely on to make their point.

After all, we vets hold a financial stake whenever we’re fortunate enough to intersect with these supposedly soft-headed pet people and separate them from their hard-earned cash—that’s the implication, at least.

Pets, the media argue in these cases, are tiny luxuries for which silly, animal-addled humans invest loads of emotional, psychological and (most importantly) financial resources. Apparently, pets do not fuel an industry worthy of patriotic protection, nor is investing in their care considered a rational endeavor.

Those pet owners who are especially afflicted by this version of irrational exuberance, the media argue, can be identified most readily by their easy way with their funds when it comes to their furry companions.

Case in point: The Wall Street Journal’s recent report on “time share” pets, pet “hotel and spa” services and robotic pet playthings. Never do these stories stray far from the geographic zone to which kooky marketplace pieces are relegated. And almost never are they reported with the seriousness and journalistic integrity to which other issues are treated.

Indeed, these stories, whether in the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, are salaciously headlined and cheekily worded, and they unfailingly single out financial expenditures as the prism through which the human-animal bond is best observed.

And that’s not fair.

We work hard to cure pets in ways never before imaginable … and because we’ve come so far we’re suddenly subject to criticism based on how much our patients’ caretakers are willing to spend? Puh-lease!

Closer to home, another sign of public sentiment: At a recent high school reunion in Miami, my vet-surgeon significant other received the award for “most interesting profession.” He accepted his honor to whispers of, “Can you believe anyone can make a good living replacing hips on dogs?” and “It’s incredible what people will pay for!”

All ribbing aside, the writing on the wall is plain: Those crazy people they refer to are our clients. And they’re served by people like us. So what does that say about our profession?

Historically, veterinarians have been held up as respectable for our perceived altruism, for our ability to straddle the line between science and sentimentality. Now fast-forward to 2008: Is the perception of big money in our profession changing everything?

Back to Boswell the goose: Are we effectively being demonized for our willingness to take advantage of the misguided MIT professors among our clientele, even when their pets are well served?

And the soulful Ugandan villagers: Why is veterinary medicine being singled out for its laudable achievements? As if our clients’ responsible behavior on behalf of their animal companions was intrinsically less worthwhile than any other “non-essential” human endeavor just because it’s expensive at times.

I reject the media’s negative slant on our profession’s accomplishments. Veterinarians should recognize that not all press is good press. And we should all reject the notion that the human-animal bond is a discreditable concern once its price tag exceeds a luxury car’s.

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