When our 5-month-old kitten, Jasper, went into kidney failure a few years ago, letting him die wasn’t an option.
We rushed him to our veterinarian, who drew his blood, X-rayed him and cultured his urine. She told us he might have a few days to live. So we drove to an emergency clinic, where he saw an internist, then a nephrologist. He spent three days in intensive care, while he underwent ultrasounds, urinalyses and blood-chemistry profiles. Slowly, he began to recover.
It took a while for our bank accounts to do the same. We had adopted Jasper for next to nothing from a shelter, but a few days of emergency care had cost us more than $3,000.
Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, our pets are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. But it has also become much harder to let them go. When our dogs and cats used to get very sick, we could justify putting them to sleep because it was the only option. Now, in an age of kidney transplants for cats and chemotherapy for dogs, euthanasia has begun to seem like a cruel way out.
Yet not everyone can afford to save their pets. And some go bankrupt trying. As I write in my new book, “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs,” we have become closer to our pets than at any point in human history. But just how far should we go to save them?
That’s not a dilemma early veterinarians wrestled with. The American vet of 150 years ago was more of a mechanic than a physician. He focused solely on economically valuable creatures like cows and horses.
As livestock disappeared from cities at the turn of the 20th century, vets turned to pets to save their profession. By the mid-20th century, the number of vets had quintupled, and pets had become their most reliable source of income. But a far more significant transformation had taken place. What was once an economic relationship between human and beast had become a sentimental one. The owners of cows and horses would never have spent more money on their animals than they were worth, but cat and dog owners did – sometimes in a single visit.
Far more than toys or pet food, the vet clinic provided an outlet for people to express their true devotion to their pets: They were no longer just spoiling them; they could now save their lives. Meanwhile, by providing humanlike medicine, vets signaled to society that pets were worthy of such care, elevating their status above that of any other animal. The behavior of owners, combined with the services offered by veterinarians, helped turn pets into true family members. Owners became parents. And vets, far from their days as the mechanics of livestock, became the pediatricians of fur babies.
Today, veterinarians belong to one of the most respected professions in the country, ranking just behind doctors and nurses. And we’re shelling out more on medical care for our pets than ever before, in excess of $15 billion this year in the United States alone. A lot of that comes from owners willing to spend anything – or almost anything – to delay the inevitable. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of people would pay up to $1,000 to save their animals, with another quarter ready to spend $3,000 or more.
All of this might seem like good news for vets, but they’re struggling with the issue. “It’s wonderful that people are willing to spend $10,000 or $20,000 to deal with their sick pet, but ethically it puts us in quicksand,” says Douglas Aspros, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the manager of a veterinary clinic in White Plains, New York. “If a client wants me to do a $20,000 surgery on a cat, the practicality has to go beyond, ‘There’s someone willing to pay for it.’ As a society, should we be promoting that?” Some vets, says Aspros, offer credit to people with marginal incomes – so they can afford their vet expenses – and they end up paying high interest rates. “How much responsibility do we have for getting them into that?”
Owners too may need to start asking themselves how much is too much. We live in a society that increasingly allows us to spend our way out of almost any dilemma. Yet no matter how hard we try, we can’t make our pets live as long as we do. Attempting to do so could put us in the poor house. At some point, the sentimental relationship we have with our pets has to become an economic one. If we do make that ultimate decision, however, we can console ourselves with having given our animals the best life possible. After all, any cat or dog that has escaped living on the street or in a cage in a shelter has won the lottery, regardless of whether we spring for that kidney transplant.
For now, I’m thankful to have Jasper by my side. He’s almost 9 now, and still frisky. Luckily, we were able to weather the financial storm he put us through. And we’d do it again. Jasper may have put a dent in our savings, but it’s still the best money we’ve ever spent.
Grimm, deputy news editor at Science, is author of “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs.”
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