January 30, 2014

PARANDEKAR | New Year, New Pet Resolutions

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Let’s talk about routine animal health care. The start of the new year is stereotypically when people decide to lead healthier lifestyles: They make an effort to go to the gym, eat better and follow their doctors’ advice. But what about healthier lifestyles for our pets? Routine wellness care is the bread and butter of many veterinary practices, but I’ve increasingly been hearing complaints from people that their pet’s veterinarian has recommended frivolous procedures and that appointment costs are higher than ever. Somehow, the perception seems to have developed that many veterinarians are just out for money.

I can see how this perception could have arisen. First of all, there has recently been increased media attention regarding the high cost of a veterinary education and about how most vet students graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Unfortunately, it is human nature to assume that veterinarians would do whatever possible to make more money in order to climb their way out of debt. People fail to consider, however, that veterinarians do not choose their profession for the money. I’ve never met a single veterinarian or veterinary student who has said, “I decided to become a veterinarian because I want to be rich someday.” Most veterinarians do what they do because they feel passionate about the profession, and they completely acknowledge that they may face financial difficulties. I’ve never met a veterinarian who would recommend a procedure purely for monetary gain or that would be detrimental to an animal.

So what about these ostensibly frivolous procedures that veterinarians seem to be recommending? For example, I’ve heard several complaints about dental procedures that companion animal veterinarians have recommended that often cost hundreds of dollars. To pet owners, it sometimes seems as if the veterinarian has only glanced in their animal’s mouth before recommending one of these procedures. However, they are not frivolous –– dental health is essential to maintaining our pets’ well-being. The veterinarian has likely seen signs of periodontal disease, ranging from gingivitis to calculus accumulation on the teeth. Many of these conditions can be painful and even lead to the eventual loss of teeth. Animals can be very good at hiding signs of pain, so owners often do not notice their pets are experiencing any discomfort. But imagine what it would be like if your mouth hurt all the time –– especially when you tried to eat.

Aside from the necessity of these procedures, many owners question the validity of their high cost. Hundreds of dollars seems high for a simple dental procedure, but take into account that the costs of pet dental care are similar to that of human dental care and that animals must additionally be put under general anesthesia. Maybe one day pet insurance will be commonplace, affordable and inclusive of routine procedures and office visits, but it isn’t there yet.

There are two take-home messages from all of this. Firstly, the real issue may not be the procedures or how much they cost, but the quality of the veterinarian-client relationship. I think that clients have to make an effort to shop around, not for a veterinarian with the lowest prices, but for a veterinarian who they can get along with, who knows their animal and who they can trust. From the veterinarian’s side, perhaps more should be done to explain to clients the rationale behind the procedures they suggest ––though handing out informative pamphlets may be quick and efficient, it doesn’t always help to build the most successful relationship between veterinarian and client. The other message to remember is that routine animal care is important in order to maintain the welfare of our companions: Owners should take this into account when they consider acquiring an animal and should make an effort to stay on top of their animal’s needs. It’s never too late to make a new resolution –– for 2014, consider pledging to stay on top of your pet’s medical needs.

Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a third-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at [email protected]. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.