The rhetoric and economics of veterinary health care (PART 2)

Our dog the day after his surgery

Our dog the day after his surgery

When our dog broke his leg and we paid for costly surgery, the veterinary emergency communication described in my previous blog entry was only ONE dimension of our experience.  What about our communication among family members and friends, and our own reasoning about the cost and the ethics of our decision?

We have had many conversations, emails, and debates about whether it was right or wrong for us to spend this much money on our puppy.

I am sure many among them are thinking of one fact — we have no children.

So the reasoning goes, we must have an “unhealthy” love for our pet. That’s a common sentiment out there…

This occasion calls for rhetorical practice — A mini-essay:

Why loving animals and not having children can be an ethical decision

What if it is just normal, and ethically a very good thing, that some people are “wired for” the love of animals?

We have always loved animals and been more drawn to them.  I used to collect bugs when I was young.  I had a pet toad.  My husband also had many pets, and living in the country he once even captured a mink and watched it for a while before releasing it.

Animals have been an important part of our married life for 21 years.  We both have really terrible allergies to most hairy pets (except certain breeds of dogs).

  • Whenever we go to another city that has a zoo, we are likely to visit it.
  • We have cared for tarantulas, turtles, a kingsnake, anoles, and even had a pair of female ferrets for 5 years (despite our allergies!  They lived in their own room).
  • One year we even brought home some _banana slugs_ to enjoy for a summer (yes those really huge slugs from the west coast) because we were so intrigued by them.
  • If we were not so deathly allergic to them, we would have cats.

We decided 21 years ago we did not want to raise our own child.  We felt we just did not have the right skills and enough of a strong drive to do it. We enjoy other people’s children when they are well behaved.  Neither of us are drawn to human babies–they are fragile, leaky, noisy, demanding, and not as “cute” as animal babies.  Given a choice between spending 1 hour playing with a very young child and 1 hour playing with or observing an animal, I choose the latter.

But of course we value humans!!   I tell people I “take care” of children over 18 in my role as a university prof.  Does everyone have to focus on the care of the youngest ones among us?  …

Why are people so age-ist?  Humans at all ages need respect and care, so why am I being any less socially repsonsible by focusing on the intellectual and skill development of university-age humans?

Why do we idolize the idea of “the child?”  We use the term “poster child” and on the TV we see appeals to help children all over the world.  Do we ever have “poster grandmothers” or hear campaigns for development aid to assist destitute senior citizens?  There must be many destitute seniors who are single or have been widowed and have no families to care for them.  My own parents are aging and will likely need my assistance.

Why must I bring my own child into the world to prove to people I am not “selfish”?   A person can have a child for selfish reasons too.

I can understand the statement that I should “get over” my “silly” aversion to the difficulty of raising human babies, and the likelihood that I would deeply love my own child.

But should I also “get over” my reluctance to spend a lot of time and effort over 18 years or more and about $167,000 Canadian Council on Social Development ?

Should I also “get over” the fact that there’s a big chance I’d pass along my genetic flaws that led me to develop ankylosing spondylitis and severe hypothyroidism?

Last summer we finally decided that we had the right lifestyle to support a hypoallergenic dog.  My husband and I decided he would remain unemployed indefinitely.   (This is yet another life choice we have received criticism for.)  He would be able to care for a dog, and would benefit from the companionship of a dog, while I was at work.

So it was a very difficult but extremely meaningful and conscious decision to obtain our dog last summer.

Our dog is a valuable family member.  He is not a human child, but he is a beautiful creature with a distinct personality and the ability to learn things and remember people.  He has formed a strong attachment to us.  He depends on us in the same way a child does.

  • The economic decision

Decades ago we had a friend named Colin, a single man on a limited budget, who spent $1000 on expensive surgery for his cat, and then his cat died, and it cost him even more money for its cremation at the vet hospital.  We always thought of that as an example of foolish expenditure, and just one more piece of proof that Colin was not very wise in his life decisions.  Now that we are in the same situation, I am not so sure we evaluated Colin’s  situation considering all the factors.

I am mystified by economics and how humans measure the value of life and health over time.

Whenever care has a price tag, it is all skewed out of proportion because of the ways human beings set prices on things.  A mother’s care apparently costs nothing, but is priceless.  We spend peanuts on daycare workers compared to divorce lawyers.

It is very hard when one is faced with the responsibility to choose life or death for an innocent creature that depends on us.

Of course, our pet is not a human child.  If he were, death would not be an option.  In fact, our moral choice would be simpler in our culture. Whether or not to provide the best treatment would not be an option, and one could afford it given the Canadian health care system — except of course for some treatments that are not covered by our system.

In our culture, where pet euthanasia is seen as a reasonable option and price is a factor, it is harder to find peace about whether we are doing the right thing.

My heart says it’s morally right to save my innocent, young, and otherwise healthy dog’s life.

My mind has a hard time dealing with the cost.

It helps me a little to think about the money in perspective.  The surgery is a price that seems outlandish because it is dished out all at once.  Normally we don’t think about the cost because it is spent so slowly over time.  Before we bought Wilbur, we did research on the costs of dog ownership.

  • The online estimates for the cost of maintaining a single healthy dog is at least $60 per month, or $720 per year. http://dogs.about.com/od/becomingadogowner/a/costofdogs.htm
  • Another website estimates for a 14 year life span of a small to medium dog that never requires special medical care, it costs a total of $7,240 to $12,700 over his life.  http://www.petplace.com/dogs/what-it-costs-to-own-a-dog/page1.aspx
  • How much does it cost to care for a single dog or 2 dogs (if we had 2 dogs, they’d be companions for each other while we are busy on the computers)?
  • How much does it cost to care for a dog breed that would live on average only 8-10 years compared to one that lives 15 years?
  • How much does it cost to care for a dog that is bigger and eats more, compared to a smaller a dog that requires frequent haircuts?
  • Compare this to the cost of raising a child in Canada.

Don’t you think that some of this could be expressed in veterinary hospital communication as well?  It is not only hard to think like a vet, but hard to think about long-term economics, when one is in the stressful situation we were in.

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4 thoughts on “The rhetoric and economics of veterinary health care (PART 2)

  1. Pingback: The rhetoric and economics of veterinary health care « Edu*Rhetor

  2. Честно говоря, сначала до конца не понял, но со второго раза дошло – спасибо!

  3. Quite interesting. I assume that you could have found a way to pay for the surgery at the initially quoted cost. How did you decide what you could/couldn’t “afford”? My husband and I are making a somewhat similar decision now about one of our sweet cats, who is not suffering but according to bloodwork may have an underlying condition that could eventually cause her death. Do we go down the route of expensive interventions without knowing whether her quality of life may be improved? Any further thoughts about how one would make a decision in a situation that is not an emergency? Hope the little guy has continued to do well!

  4. Hello Emilie, sorry for replying months later. I’m on sabbatical in 2012! To reply to your questions: We had to consider our income and our values to determine what was affordable. Having to pay anything over $500 was a surprise because we were new, naive pet owners. However, we considered our respect for the dog as an independent creature who gave much joy to our lives and who was utterly dependent upon us for survival and health. In your case, treating an underlying condition would be a similar situation: though a crisis of death or injury may not present at the moment, it is within your knowledge to potentially prolong his/her healthy life. Only you can determine whether it is appropriate and within your means to help your dear pet. I hope your cat is doing well. Wilbur our dog is doing very well; he completely healed from his leg surgery within months, and still has a metal plate on his leg. Videos of Wilbur running and playing are on his very own youtube website is here http://www.youtube.com/user/elizmontagu

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