Table of contents:
THE ROLE OF COMPANION ANIMALS IN OUR SOCIETY.
THE HUMAN ANIMAL BOND
At the end of 2018, in a world that was technically advanced and constantly connected, 65% of Canadian homes contained either a dog, a cat or both. What do those figures tell us about our own lives and the animals that so many of us share our time with? Perhaps they indicate that our pets are offering us something we can not find on social media, in many of our human relationships and in our busy lives. Considering that companion animals are loyal, forgiving friends who don't judge us, who accept us for the way we are and who seem perennially grateful for whatever life throws their way, this may not be surprising. In addition, it has been clearly shown that companion animals improve our physical and emotional well-being and in return, we are asked to provide them with food, shelter, affection and regular exercise. All in all, it's a bargain the majority of us are more than happy to make.
Once a pet enters our home, it doesn't take long for us to realize that it has its own personality. Some are loud mouthed and outgoing, some can be shy and reclusive. In addition, the more we spend time around them, the more we realize how sentient they are. They clearly know sadness, joy and fear and soon those of us, with even a semblance of sensitivity, will begin to care about this being who has entered our lives. A relationship develops. The veterinary profession, for its part, is more than happy to acknowledge this relationship and the bond that exists between owners and their companion animals. Why would that be, you may ask?
The bond that exists between pet owners and their companion animals has truly become the financial lifeblood of the veterinary industry worldwide. If one doubts that fact, consider that in 2009 for instance, figures from Western Canada reveal almost 60% of veterinarians in the region cared exclusively for companion animals. The current figures south of the border are similar. Visits by dog owners constitute almost 50% of all visits to veterinarians. A further 25% come from cat owners and 5-10% result from consultations by owners about their horses, pigs, hedgehogs, birds, fish, reptiles etc. The work veterinarians do caring for domestic livestock or for Government agencies etc now constitutes barely 20% of the total workload in the veterinary profession.
PUBLIC EXPENDITURES ON PETS
Pet owners frequently lavish large proportions of their disposable incomes on the care of their animals, even though, under the law, those same animals are considered as chattel and are deemed worthy of no more than a few hundred dollars in replacement value. In 2018 for instance, Canadian owners of companion animals spent close to $2 billion on veterinary services and an additional $2 billion on food, accessories, health and daycare for their various pets. The vast majority of the income of veterinarians comes from revenue generated by seeing companion animals. Their other clients, who may own cattle, pigs, or chickens, generally raise their animals for slaughter and those owners have a different relationship with their animals compared to the folks who solely have companion animals.Those owners, who have animals for commercial purposes, rarely are willing to spend more on veterinary care than what those animals may be worth when sold at auction. The veterinary industry is fully aware of this and this is why so many veterinarians are now working in the companion animal field, because that is where the financial rewards are greatest.
When it comes to the USA, the dollar amounts spent on household pets are proportionally greater than those in Canada as the highlighted link reveals. Therefore, the veterinary industry is not just happy, but is in fact determined to acknowledge that pets are considered as part of the family. Failure to do so would be financial suicide. Veterinary Centres of America (VCA), one of the largest corporations operating veterinary clinics in Canada, even keeps track of how many pets sleep with their owners!
DRIVERS OF VETERINARY EXPENDITURES
When it comes to the vast sums spent on veterinary care, one has to ask, is it the wishes or demands of pet owners that is solely driving these expenditures, or is there another agenda that may be contributing to what is happening? The veterinary profession stresses the need for annual preventative check ups, regular vaccinations and a whole host of other recommendations to keep pets healthy. Core vaccinations have obvious benefits to an animal's health and Ronald Schultz, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and other reputable institutions, such as UC Davis have recommended repeating those core vaccinations every three years. Despite this, some animals across Canada appear to be receiving these core vaccinations more frequently than what the expert authorities are recommending. One has to only look at a random sample of the websites of veterinary practices across Canada to see that this is in fact occurring. Indeed, fully one third of all visits to veterinary clinics in this country are initiated by veterinarians for the purpose of vaccinating companion animals. One has to ask therefore, what percentage of those visits are truly indicated, when one considers that vaccinating an animal prematurely can be associated with adverse reactions, just as in human healthcare.
Apart from the issue of vaccinations, the other common reason for pets to visit a veterinarian is for their annual check-up. There is a widespread belief, propagated by veterinarians, that such examinations may detect unknown illnesses, allow earlier interventions and hence generate better outcomes for any problems discovered. It all sounds pretty reasonable. However, in human medicine, there is no evidence showing that such preventative consultations affect significant patient outcomes such as mortality rates and it seems from the veterinary literature that the same applies in veterinary medicine. What these annual pet checkups do detect, however, amongst other things, are minor changes in routine blood work. Again there is no statistical evidence to substantiate that this detection or other interventions at screening pet examinations improves the mortality or the other important health outcomes for the animals being examined, despite it being widely implied by the veterinary profession that these examinations will do so. What we do know for sure is that those visits will cost pet owners a minimum of $150-250 and often much more to have their asymptomatic animals examined and to have them tested for various conditions by veterinarians.
GOLD STANDARD CARE:
In this day and age, the veterinary profession can, during consultations, offer almost every conceivable procedure and test available in human medicine to its clients, in response to what it claims are the vigorous demands from pet owners that their animals receive "Gold Standard Care". However, while pet owners can no doubt be very demanding, is it always they who are demanding this "Gold Standard" level care or is it, at times, the veterinary profession itself that is promoting the availability of these services to vulnerable and easily influenced pet owners? The technical advances and procedures available now in veterinary medicine are obviously life saving for many animals and they are clearly indicated and much appreciated by the owners of the pets receiving that care. However this level of care often entails the animal having an invasive procedure under a general anesthetic.The simple question that I believe needs to be asked therefore is, do all animals need such intensive care especially in the last months of their lives, which is when a significant proportion of the provision of this "Gold Standard Care" is occurring? Most ethical veterinarians, I suggest, would in these situations say no and they would instead offer alternative and more appropriate and commensurate care, even though it might hurt their incomes to do so.
Finally, the "Gold Standard Care," that the veterinary industry currently provides, also frequently comes with a hefty price tag that some can afford but which increasingly is well beyond the reach of the majority of pet owners. This frequent provision of "Gold Standard Care" therefore and its concomitant Gold Standard Cost is also raising the question as to whether pet ownership will become increasingly a discretionary lifestyle choice and an activity that only the truly wealthy can afford. If that occurs, it would be a sad day, especially if it deters potential pet owners from sharing their lives with a companion animal.