March 13, 2014

PARANDEKAR | Pet Ownership: Idealism vs. Realism

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Lately I’ve been noticing that I am no longer as idealistic about certain aspects of the veterinary profession as I used to be. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the ethical requirements are to be a pet owner. To explain this train of thought, I’m going to start with a story.

The first pet that I was old enough to beg my parents for was a cockatiel (a small parrot you’ve probably seen in pet stores). I was around 10 years old, and one of my friends had a cockatiel that I thought was amazing, so I talked to my parents who told me that I should prove to them that I really wanted it. My interpretation of this was to write them a long detailed proposal where I showed that I had done the research on how to take care of it, created a little budget detailing how much it would cost and pledged to care for it completely. I stuck to my word once I got it — that bird and I were almost inseparable until I went to college, and giving her away was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I’m telling you this story so you can see where I’m coming from when I think about pet ownership. To me, being a pet owner means knowing everything possible to make sure that your pet leads a healthy, happy life. This isn’t the first time I’ve said it, but I’m one of those people who can be completely rational about other peoples’ animals and totally neurotic about my own.

So when I first started spending time with veterinarians in high school, I remember being appalled at the way some people treated their pets. Please note, none of the cases mentioned in this column are real, but the situations are very common. There were plenty of clients who doted on their pets, but there seemed to always be some who had no idea what to do, to the extent that their animals would suffer simply because of the human’s ignorance. For example, the people who waited until their animals had not been eating or drinking for days before they brought them to the vet would make me angry. When an animal stops eating and drinking there is usually something very wrong, and I couldn’t believe that people would let their animals continue to be uncomfortable for days. I was convinced that these irresponsible people should never be allowed to have pets, and wished there was some type of regulatory system in place to enforce that.

After a few years, I came to realize that these were not “bad” people (when is the world ever so black and white?) but were simply uneducated. Often, they cared for their animals just as much as I did. How can you dislike the man who loved his elderly, disease-ridden cat so much he couldn’t bear to think about putting her down, even when it seemed like it was “time” to everyone else? Or the parents of the raggedy little girl who doted on her little puppy, but they lived in a third world country and couldn’t afford flea and tick medication, so the tiny puppy had more than 50 ticks on it and was potbellied from tick-borne diseases? The conclusion I came to — and that I’ve expounded in several other columns — is that educating our clients is vitally important. I understood that they didn’t all approach pet-ownership with the same thirst for knowledge that I did, but cared so much that they would do the right thing if only they knew what it was.

I understood that they didn’t all approach pet-ownership with the same thirst for knowledge that I did, but cared so much that they would do the right thing if only they knew what it was.

As more time passed, I realized that conclusion was true for many, but not for everyone. There are some people who are, through no fault of their own, simply un-teachable. You can say to them “when your donkey breathes like this, it means he is very sick and you need to call us,” but the next time the donkey is sick they still won’t call because they won’t recognize what you pointed out, or didn’t understand what you meant even when you explained it as simply as possible. However, they still have the best of intentions and when you tell them their animal is suffering, they are horrified.

If I were a law student instead of a veterinary student, I would say ignorance is no excuse — you’re still going to get a ticket when you’re speeding even if you claim not to have known the speed limit. Younger me would have agreed, and wanted to take away these peoples’ animals and place them somewhere they would be happier. But I’m working to be part of a profession where compassion for both humans and animals is paramount, so I’m not sure how to think about it anymore. Do I just do the best I can for the animals when I see them, and understand that their lives will not be the lives that I would want for my pet, but that’s just how life works? Or do I fight for the animals to the bitter end? Inherently, I want to do the latter, but ultimately I think I will have to work to figure out where to draw the line for true suffering. I can then approach everything up to that line with an understanding that I won’t always be able to make everything perfect, and I have to try to not let that keep me up at night.

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.