Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Truth About Animal Healthcare

Charles Danten, former veterinarian

It is a case of wishful thinking to imagine that a pet can understand and appreciate whatever good intentions are behind veterinary medical care. It is simply above and beyond their cognitive possibilities. From their point of view, a veterinary hospital is indistinguishable from a pound.

How can we be so blind to the true needs of those we love? Or, do we only pretend to love pets? After all, we cause their diseases in myriad ways on the one hand, then play dumb and profit from them on the other. This schizophrenic absurdity suggests that our concern for pet health has much more to do with trying to meet our own needs than with anything else.

Generally, sick animals cooperate as little as possible when hospitalized. The unfamiliar odours, noises, colors, and the presence of strangers and other animals of different species scare patients to varying extents depending on their degree of socialization. Although cats, birds, and exotic species are more sensitive, dogs are also deeply affected. In particular, those that rarely leave the security of their homes are overwhelmed emotionally by this experience, an immensely traumatic one from their point of view. Hyper-excitation, distress vocalization, uncontrollable urination and defecation, fear, excessive submissiveness, and manifestations of dominance and aggression are the norm in what the animal perceives as a chaotic, hellish, and life-threatening environment. Restraint is often mandatory and badly trained animals are a serious challenge. The veterinarian and his staff are exposed daily to bites, clawing, and episodes of aggression. When things get busy in such an environment, the tensions are palpable on both sides of the species divide. (1)(2)(3)

Veterinarians and pet owners often rationalize this subtle form of self-centeredness with the paediatrician argument: “Our own children don’t understand medicine either, but they have to undergo treatment for their own good, whether they like it or not.” Veterinarians see themselves as paediatricians of sorts, but the comparison is completely invalid. Parents are more often authorized to stay with their children while they are being treated; they can even sleep over in some cases. They can reason with their children and explain what is being done to them. Eventually, kids can be convinced that the procedures are necessary if they want to get better. They are rarely left unattended and without care for long hours, even whole days and nights, like animals are. Veterinary clinics and hospitals that pay staff to keep watch over patients overnight, on weekends, and on holidays are the rare exception. Furthermore, when a treatment becomes too inconvenient or expensive, parents do not get rid of their children by dropping them off at a pound (euphemistically called a “shelter”) or by having them euthanized for a pittance by their paediatrician. Pet owners like to think of themselves as the parents of their animals, but they overlook the fact that the children they claim are not their own. They are rather children that were abducted from their biological parents, from species that were abducted from their natural communities. And yet this attitude is so trite as to seem perfectly natural and legitimate.

In conclusion, pets dislike being muzzled, tied up, penned up, injected, bandaged, pilled, groomed, or subjected to often-excruciating cancer treatments or a kidney transplant. Even when bearing positive results, therapeutic egotism must be counted as one more abuse added to the end of a very long list. After all, is there any other way in which animals could possibly interpret medical procedures? This, in turn, begs the question, whom does animal healthcare really aim to please? Obviously, owners and veterinarians are far more satisfied than the patients themselves. How could they know that we want to care for them and cure them? Our egocentric drive to make them better allows us to remain blind to their deeper needs…and in very old or sick pets, it can add a twist of cruelty to the end of a life that was spent at the service of man.

Children are subjected to our unnatural affection and solicitations for their entire lives, and we forget far too easily that they never asked for any of it. We give it in a misdirected attempt to meet our own needs, and this exploitation is at the root even of the medical care that we kind-heartedly administer to them.


1. Joanna Swabe (1996). Animals as a Natural Resource: Ambivalence in the Human-Animal Relationship in a Veterinary Practice. Amsterdam School for Social Science Research.

2. Joanna Swabe (1996). Animals, Disease, and Human Social Life: The Human-Animal Relationship Reconsidered. Onderzoekers.

3. Sanders Clinton R. (1994). Biting the Hand that Heals You: Encounters with Problematic Patients in a General Veterinary Practice. Society and Animals; 2(1): 47-66.