Purebreds are overrepresented in popular culture. Though a few of the Hollywood elite may proudly promenade their “rescue mutts” as they shop Rodeo Drive, most lay claim to full-blooded epitomes of dogdom. Heck, even Taylor Swift parades her #ScottishFold through Manhattan streets, á la @ParisHilton. Not even cats are immune.
We all know what this means. It amounts to more genetic diseases, more pathology in practice, and more zebras to work up. It also comes down to a whole lot more gut-wrenching exam room experiences. What’s more, we all know that each purebred animal we examine typically represents the apex of a triangle comprised of suffering at its USDA-inspected base.
Which also translates to one thing all veterinarians require: job security.
I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to thinking impure thoughts whenever I see a bouncing baby Frenchie peeking out of a carrier across the reception desk. Quite apart from the cute overkill and the irresistible puppy breath fumes that emanate from that malformed face, the very presence of a purebred pup has a way of saying, “Income otw!”
Can you blame me?
If you do, I’d urge you examine the state of our profession more closely as you ponder the economic and cultural fundamentals of modern veterinary practice.
The financial reality
Most general practices rely heavily on the treatment of chronic conditions typically associated with genetic diseases. Think about all those allergic skin diseases, spinal maladies, respiratory ailments, orthopedic disorders, ophthalmic afflictions, cancers, and cardiac conditions (among many others). They bring the lion’s share of pathology into our working lives.
Would you have as many active patients if all our pets were just three generations removed from purebreds? What would your workplace look like if all your pets looked like muttly dingo proto-dogs?
Just ask a specialist: Where would you be without your purebred patients? It’s true! If we waved a wand and eliminated purebreds, the economics of our profession would be instantly turned upside down. We’d see record unemployment among generalists and utter panic within specialty circles.
The feline model
Here’s a reality check that proves the point: Our profession recently undertook a study that delved into the disproportionality we observe in feline versus canine healthcare spending. Regardless of their income class, our clients consistently visited us less and spent less on their cats.
I attended the unveiling of this study at a conference, at which a lengthy list of worthy reasons was offered to explain the discrepancy. None included one of the reasons I find most obvious: Cats tend to present for trauma, parasites, and infectious diseases. These typically acute issues are more prevalent among free-roaming cats—pets who are inherently less likely to be considered family members and present less anyway. The balance of our domesticated felines is mostly domestic shorthairs, cats who suffer from chronic genetic conditions way less often.
In veterinary terms cats live largely uneventful lives, and it seems obvious that their genetic health goes a long way toward explaining why they often seem to win the game of veterinary keepaway. I’m convinced it’s a big reason why we’re forced to live without the income cats might otherwise generate.
Which raises the scary question: What would our profession look like if our canine population suffered from genetic diseases as seldom as our cats did?
Another inconvenient truth
We talk a big game about eliminating puppy mills, lambast irresponsible breeding, and decry genetic diseases among purebreds, but the unfortunate reality is that our economic status quo depends on them. Nonetheless, it’s not about the money for most of us. After all, we adore our purebreds every bit as dearly as our clients do.
Think about it: Our Instagram posts are overrepresented by purebred patients like that gorgeous merle great Dane and that previously mentioned Frenchie pup (both on my personal feed recently). Not only are we attracted to them ourselves, but we also know that good marketing means appealing to our purebred-addled clientele, too.
All of which feeds what I view as a cultural contagion. Sure, it’s only human to harbor an attraction to familiar characteristics and repetitive patterns in anything, much less in puppies, but here’s the thing: We know we’re tacitly endorsing an industry that suffers animal welfare issues. What’s worse, we also know that our purebred passions promote healthcare-related suffering, too.
Not that I’m immune. I’ve owned five Frenchies over the past 15 years (no longer on this earth and it’s no wonder) and I currently keep one pug-like thing and two Mals. I, too, know a thing or two about our human affinity for purebreds and the cognitive dissonance that goes along with it.
Enter Dr. Pete Wedderburn, a colleague I’ve kept correspondence with for many years. Dr. Wedderburn writes a popular column across the pond in the U.K. After alerting me to an article titled “Put Down That Pug,” he asked me why it seemed so hard to get veterinarians on board with the notion that clients should be actively discouraged not just from buying or breeding purebreds, but also from owning them too.
You’ll never get the U.S. veterinary population to buy in, I told him. Not only are we too obsessed with our purebreds to appreciate the role they play in the economics of our profession, those who do pay more attention to these things (big pharma, big pet food, et al) would mount substantial opposition if we ever did make headway here. No one wants to see animal healthcare economics take a turn to the south, much less an about face.
Yet who’s better poised to make a difference? Last I checked we’re the only profession expressly tasked with alleviating animal suffering as its prime directive. But even with a front row seat to what’s indisputably an animal welfare crisis, we persist in what can reasonably be characterized as a blithe disregard for animal suffering.
We can and should do better. But that means we’ll have to find a way to afford it. Dentists did it when fluorinated water changed their paradigm. Can we?
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.