Mills Baker is a former veterinary technician in a small animal hospital. Here, he responds to the Quora question: How do vets deal with animals who will be put down just because a surgery is too much money?
When I worked at a veterinary hospital, our two veterinarians had pretty different attitudes about this (rather common) situation, reflecting their values and ages in my opinion.
The older veterinarian felt that pets were wonderful, important, worthy of love and compassion and affection, but he still regarded them as property, as categorically different from not only humans but indeed the human world.
He felt untroubled by humans who didn’t prioritise their pet’s health over all else; he viewed cost-based decisions about pet healthcare as not only reasonable, but unexceptional. He was always willing to work with owners to try and make things affordable, but if an owner, for example, decided not to pursue hip replacement and to instead euthanise a dog, he didn’t find that problematic.
For his generation, pets were a class of animals but remained animals; and by his values, animals were more or less like property, to fit into (or not fit into) the lives of humans as humans themselves saw fit. Only cruelty to animals bothered him, and as he didn’t regard euthanasia —or a shortened lifespan— as cruel, he was comfortable with it.
The younger veterinarian felt that pets, and maybe all animals, were “better than humans,” and should be subjects of more or less infinite devotion for anyone morally decent. No cost was too steep, nor was any therapeutic regimen too rigorous; if for example, a pet needed to be held up to go to the bathroom for 3 months and a single-parent complained that they weren’t sure how they’d manage, she seemed to feel mostly anger or contempt.
In her view, a pet is a child, and you should always do absolutely everything you can for your child. Cost calculations struck her as immoral and outrageous, which seemed like a tough spot to be in working in a Louisiana vet where many clients were poor. She felt the injustice she perceived acutely; it would weigh on her for days, and she often said that she hated people generally and pet owners specifically.
My own view was simply that so many animals and so many pets are euthanised or killed or die needlessly every single day globally that reacting to individual variances of months or years in the lives of pets in the rich first world was a kind of theatre for ourselves, a performance for our own approving inner audience. If we hated pet suffering, would we be fulminating against a given pet losing several years of its life because a family can’t spend thousands of dollars on its care?
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Or would we be spraying and neutering pets for free; donating to charities that control animal populations; evangelising American conceptions of pet status globally; working to popularise pet insurance? I think the latter, so I didn’t fulminate against the former.
I also felt the anguish of some of our clients, who wanted to be good and to do good but had to balance e.g. their children’s health care against prolonging their pet’s life. And I imagined the “values drift” that had stranded older clients on beliefs many now despise, a values drift which I know will happen to us all and for which I didn’t blame them. After all: their pets, all of whom loved them easily, didn’t seem to.
Other vets I’ve known have usually had beliefs somewhere between these two poles. That an intermediary client, not you and not the pet, make these decisions is one of the many hard things about being a veterinarian.
This post originally appeared on Quora and has been republished here with full permission.