Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Dog Days of Summer

In Ancient Egypt, the new year began when the star Sirius (the dog star) appeared on the horizon just before the Sun.  5,000 years ago this happened somewhere around the first part of June.  Nowadays, this star does an opening show for the Sun somewhere around the middle of July and continues to do so until about the 2nd week of August, depending upon your lattitude.  This period of time in the summer, when the temperatures seem to be at their hottest and the days tend to loll along without any real sense of urgency has often been referred to as the 'Dog Days'.

In many ways, the 'Dog Days' signify a significant transition period for large animal veterinarians.  All the cows are out to pasture, most of the colts have been castrated, and aside from the odd cut up horse there's not a lot going on for a large animal veterinarian this time of year.  There are several days when I show up to work and there's nothing on the books at all.  At first I try to occupy the time by catching up on all of the things I've put off during calving, bull testing, and managing the inevitable outbreaks of disease that occur in young calves.  When those tasks peter out, I start looking for other outlets and soon remember that I have a blog.

The Dog Days also makes me think about, well, dogs.  Even though the large animal clinic is slow, I work out of 2 clinics, and the other clinic does a sizeable amount of small animal medicine.  For the most part, small animal medicine makes for a very enjoyable and fulfilling break from large animal medicine.  I especially enjoy working with family pets.  Helping an animal recover its health always seems much more rewarding when there is a little boy or girl attached to it.  However, there are times when small animal medicine can make me want to pull my hair out.  Most of these instances involve people whose attachment to their animals surpasses the boundaries of common sense, many times to the detriment of animal welfare.

Over the past 50 some odd years, the values and priorities or our western society have been in a state of flux.  When my Grandfather was my age, the majority of pet dogs and cats lived outside.  It seemed only the very wealthy and/or eccentric had dogs and cats actually living in the house.  The loss of a pet was certainly a sad occasion, but for the most part was marked by a minimum of ceremony, and was often regarded as a necessary part of growing up.  Family relations were considered paramount to whatever bonds may connect man and beast.  Gradually this scale of priorities has shifted; almost to the point of inversion.  Pets have moved from the backyard, to the living room, to the bedroom, and finally to the bed.  It is not uncommon for people who are estranged from their family members to have a pet that they love and cherish more than their own children, siblings, or parents.  Pet loss has gone from being a necessary and expected part of owning a pet to a major ordeal where persons involved may experience feelings of loss akin to the death of a spouse, parent, or child.

This shift in values has been both a boon and a bane to veterinary medicine.  When a person ascribes greater value to their pet, they are more willing to expend resources to diagnose and treat pet illness.  Preventing illness through vaccination, dental cleaning, and routine check-ups has also become more common place.  However, there are times when a pet owner's affection can be detrimental to their pet's health.  For instance, many people equate feeding their pet with showing it love, resulting in widespread pet obesity.  A large portion of the disease that we see in small animal patients could be prevented simply by feeding pets only as much food as they need.  Treats are also a major culprit, and can take on the form of milk bones, which are relatively harmless if given in sufficiently small quantities, to portions off of the dinner plate which really have no place in a pet's diet.  Some people feel the need to cook for their pets, or conversely, feed them raw basic ingredients.  Often times these programs are elaborate and difficult to follow, and as such, mistakes in formulating rations are common.  Ironically, many dogs and cats on homecooked or raw diets become deficient in nutrients that are commonly found in most commercial pet foods.

Another way that affectionate pet owners do their pets a disservice is through end of life decisions.  Many times pets are allowed to languish and suffer through chronic, terminal diseases because their owners simply cannot bring themselves to let go.  Sometimes these diseases are left untreated due to financial constraints.  However, even when finances permit an aggressive diagnostic and treatment regimen, there comes a point when keeping your pet alive because you cannot bear to let it go becomes inhumane.

Along with this rise in grief over pet loss, has come a rise in the number of litigation cases over the loss of pets to medical errors.  For the bulk of modern history, pets have been considered chattel by the law, thus relegating any litigation to a matter of the intrinsic value of the animal.  However recently there have been court cases where bereaved pet owners have sued for emotional losses. While these types of cases may seem like a victory for animal rights to some, their existence puts the animal health industry on a very slippery slope.  Once a 'free to a good home' puppy that has no intrinsic market value begins to carry a treatment liability exceeding tens of thousands of dollars, the cost of obtaining the puppy remains small while the cost of performing veterinary medicine will grow exponentially.  Fewer veterinarians will be able to afford keeping the doors to their clinics open, which will mean a scarcity of veterinary clinics with no change in the pet population.  As the demand for veterinary services increases with this scarcity, so too will the price of obtaining those services.

While I am not advocating that we love our pets less, I am advocating a little bit of perspective.  First, as pet owners, we need to cope with the fact that we are almost certainly destined to outlive our pets.  As such, we should expect, and be prepared for the day when our beloved pet either goes of its own accord or has to be humanely euthanized.  We also need to understand that loving a pet means its welfare comes before the gratification we receive from spoiling it.  We live in a time when there is an abundance of pet foods that are formulated to fulfill all of the nutritional needs of our pets.  Most of these pet foods come with a comprehensive feeding guide that allows us to zero in on an ideal weight for our dog or cat.  While the quality of ingredients and an individual animal's preference for a particular food may vary, once you find a pet food that works for your budget and your pet's preferences, it is a very simple matter to only feed only as much of it as is required.

Regarding the legal shift of animals going from chattel to individuals with rights, there are volumes devoted to the pros and cons of that argument.  For this post, sufficeth to say that if our goal is to increase the overall welfare of animals in our society, it is my belief that meeting that goal will be much more economically feasible if animals are defined as property under the law.  Whether that is moral or not, whether it is socially acceptable or not, I will leave for another day.  However, I will conclude by predicting that defining animals as members of society with rights will invariably raise the cost of owning and caring for them to the point where only the very wealthy and/or eccentric will be able to afford legitimate care.  It may be that we come full circle and return to a time when the relationship between most humans and their dogs and cats will be reduced to infrequent encounters with strays that somehow fell through the cracks, but for whatever reason cannot fully enter our lives.

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