What Will We Say To The Children?

It was back to business as usual at January’s North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC). Attendees considered the future of veterinary medicine in a recession-battered economy.

It was back to business as usual at January’s North American Veterinary Conference (NAVC). Attendees considered the future of veterinary medicine in a recession-battered economy.

Attendees and lecturers toiled over questions such as: What will high tuition and student debt do to our profession? What can we do for our clients who love their pets but can’t afford cost of standard care recommendations for ill and injured pets? What can we do when faced with sick pets of homeless, underprivileged and jobless people? 

We did not find easy answers to these tough questions at the abundant business, medical management or behavior and shelter medicine classes. We encountered some colleagues with set philosophies who solved the problem in their own minds by saying that pets are going to have to be reclassified as “elective” or strictly considered luxuries.

The AAHA statement on responsible pet ownership, which suggests that pet owners prepare for medical emergencies with savings accounts or get pet health insurance or make arrangements with third-party payment programs, isn’t much help.

Pet Companionship 101

Since before my days in veterinary school (1968-72), I have advocated that being close to animals and keeping pets is a good thing for children and society and, therefore, the world. I have also strongly believed that animals and pets should be considered a necessity, not a luxury. This was the topic of my freshman epidemiology paper at the University of California, Davis, Veterinary School.

There, we were honored to be taught by the late, world-renowned Dr. Calvin Schwabe, who required us to write a paper. The title of my paper was, “Pets: Necessity or Luxury?” Dr. Schwabe asked me to present my paper to the UCD faculty. The reaction was mixed, but Dr. Leo Bustad, a virologist and head of the Davis radiobiology facility, followed me out of the building after I was scolded by one faculty member.

Dr. Bustad said he liked my paper and agreed with me that pets are truly an important part of society. He especially liked how I proposed the concept that pets are a necessity and that relationships between people and pets are very meaningful to children growing up in the city, which I called the “cement society.”

My paper also proposed community- or government-supported veterinary care facilities at shelters nationwide for pets of the underprivileged because providing veterinary care would be beyond their financial capability. I can still see Dr. Bustad’s large bowtie and huge smile as he kept repeating, “Yes, you have it right! Animals are a necessity.”

Later, Dr. Bustad became dean at Washington State Veterinary School, co-founder of the Delta Society and co-founder of the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians. He is widely recognized as father of the human-animal bond.

Going Mainstream

Of course, over the past 40 years many excellent papers have been published that support and provide evidence for the theory that animals play an important, positive role in society. Keeping pets at home and having access to farm and exotic animals are important in child development. Animals give children the opportunity to be fascinated, thrilled, curious and imaginative.

More people visit zoos in the United States than attend all combined sports events. Pets give children the opportunity to care for a dependent creature and to form meaningful relationships that are not judgmental and do not demand something in return, such as eating vegetables, obedience or homework.

Animals and pets serve as a great connection for children to the vast wonders of nature, the importance of their environment and habitats and the importance of sustaining a natural balance for global ecology and the future.

Every child who learns about dinosaurs can joyfully and proudly pronounce their multi-syllable names. Children also know that dinosaurs are extinct. They don’t want extinction to happen to the world’s contemporary animals, plants and insects. Many children know that the bumble bee and honey bee populations are in decline.

Yes, dogs and cats have made the great migration. They moved from the barn and fields onto the back porch and into our garages and our mud rooms. Then they moved into our kitchens and living rooms to rest by our fireplaces at night. In the past 25-30 years, these creatures have moved steadily into our bedrooms and then to the foot of our beds and now, they rest ensconced in comfort and contentment on our bedspreads and duvets.

The human-animal bond is here to stay. It is the glue that holds a huge part of our profession together.

On a global basis, we need to know more about raising our food and milk animals, our working animals and our sporting animals. We need to know more about sustaining Earth’s amazing ecosystems and wildlife and the terrain that they need to survive and thrive.

All this responsibility rests with the human race, but particularly with our profession and related scientists. This responsibility will be with us through good days and bad days, through plush cycles and recessions, through governmental turnovers from one party to another and through encroachments, melting icebergs and the rise and fall of epidemics, worldwide pandemics, local and global zoonoses and transmissible diseases.

Visionaries like my mentor, Dr. Gordon Theilen of UC Davis, who advocated the One Medicine/One Health approach, were tempered by special interest groups in the 1960s.

We can’t afford to make a mess of conservation and sustainability in this new century. If our generation fails to do the right thing regarding these great responsibilities, what will we say to the children? 

Dr. Villalobos is a past president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and is president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. Her column appears every other month.

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