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Is keeping pets a luxury?

What does the answer say about our profession?

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Ever marveled at how much more livable our lives are now that we’re lucky enough to have pets in them? Wonder how we could ever function without their soothing companionship and unconditional love?

If so, you agree with the vast majority of your clientele. Yet here’s the rub: Our culture wants it both ways: It lauds our evolving relationship with household animals as awe-inspiring and overwhelmingly positive for humanity, but it can’t help but question their collective expense. Are they a luxury?

Excessive, indulgent, inessential, hedonistic, frilly, sumptuous, extravagant.

Such are the adjectives the word “luxury” denotes. None of which, I’d argue, apply to my own conception of the animals I keep as pets. Nor is it likely to jibe with most of our clients’ take on pet-dom.

After all, most of us don’t necessarily see animal-keeping as a personal choice. We view animals among us as the result of a millennia-long process of domestication––a complex, symbiotic relationship that, evolutionarily speaking, defines our very humanity.

Which perhaps explains why humanity largely, it seems, continues to feel compelled to live in concert with animals, despite the fact that in all our modernity we’ve mostly “aged out” of keeping pets as ratters, hunters, and defenders (among other survival-based uses).

As the argument goes, there’s something so fundamentally co-evolutionary (about dogs and cats in particular) that we continue to forge these lasting bonds in spite of a seemingly less pressing need to keep them close. It only makes sense.

Pets and the pursuit of happiness

For most of you reading this, pets are decidedly not luxuries—certainly no more than anything else we might consider “essential” to our quality of life can be said to be a luxury—hot water, electricity, fossil fuels (the loss of which many of us bemoaned after this years’ storms), etc. After all, we humans need no more than Maslow’s bottom tier to make do.

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No, those of us who have dedicated our lives to animal health tend not to consider household pets luxury items. And if my read of millennial culture is on target, this seems truer of today’s pet owners than ever before. (BMW or shelter dog? We know which one they’re more likely to consider essential.)

Of course, the same cannot be said for all pet owners. Nor do I expect everyone to agree that pet-keeping ranks with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Pets, they’ll say, are nothing more than a self-indulgent drain on personal resources––one that threatens our fragile economy’s future should pet-keeping ever achieve entitlement status.

Though (to rebut the naysayers) most of us can point to plenty of clients whose only reason to get out of bed is to feed their pets. The human healthcare system cannot compete with pets for their ability to keep people alive and engaged.

Nonetheless, we can all understand the reasoning of those who wonder how far we as a society should go to shoulder the expenses not only of our human citizenry, but that of its animals as well. Because if animals are deemed essential, non-luxury goods, our social services would surely have to expand to meet the demand for low income pet care.

And that would be … inconvenient at best.

More so for those who believe keeping pets is a choice and that to impose one’s personal lifestyle decisions upon another’s bank account balance is fundamentally unfair. Or for those who wonder where we should draw the line: Is two pets too many? Is specialty care out of the question?

The hardest stance

The professional veterinary establishment takes a strange intermediate position on the subject of pets as luxuries. It says that pets are worthy of all the care humans lavish on them and that pets should be treated to the full extent of an owner’s ability to pay for them. Nonetheless, it also asserts that pets should be treated as property in the eyes of the law. Pets are objects that have no intrinsic value. They may be necessary but they are replaceable.

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No, the profession asserts, pet owners should not be allowed to collect non-economic damages after the loss of a pet. It drives the cost of healthcare through the roof and unfairly cuts into our bottom lines. And no, private veterinarians should not have to compete with publicly funded organizations that elect to shoulder the pet care expenses of those who claim they cannot afford them otherwise. Our tax dollars should not serve to undercut veterinarians’ earnings, the profession says.

By sticking to its guns on this position, our profession equates pets to luxury items. It effectively says, “Spend all you want on this one (please do!), but if you’re thinking of suing me because I may have been criminally negligent, it’s just a dog. You can always get another one. Oh and, by the way, if you truly loved her, you would have budgeted yourself better.”

What, then, is our role?

If pets are mere luxury goods, what does that say about our profession?

We are not in a vital healthcare service profession. Instead, we are in a profession more like cosmetic dermatology than pediatric dentistry. Which is to say, we are useful, but not at all essential.

We are no longer kin to James Herriot, renowned for his indispensable contributions to a community that, at its economic and social core, relied on veterinary care for its survival. As a luxury goods service provider, our role is now tangential at best.

Specialists in a market for luxury pets? At best, they’re like pretty rims on a Ferrari. Which is to say, they’re more like tits on a bull than the rest of us.

It’s problematic, to be sure. I don’t want to open the doors to lawsuits, higher taxes, or subsidized competition any more than you do. Like you, I benefit from keeping things just as they are. I do, however, worry about the soul of our profession and the lack of integrity we continually display each time our profession argues in ways that paint our patients as little luxuries.

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I also worry that how we behave as a group has little to do with what we believe as individuals, raising the specter of future schism between the profession’s evolving base and its current leadership.

With every position statement and dedicated lobbyist dollar in support of any stance that claims individual pets are not imperative to the health and welfare of humans, our profession slides deeper into a morass of future disutility and disruption. At some point, I sincerely hope we can muster the personal and professional integrity required to start seeing things a little more like those who pay our fees probably do.

Dr. Patty Khuly owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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