Richard M. DeBowes, DVM, MS, DACVS
There is a long standing relationship between people and the animals they bring into their families; a relationship that dates back to when man and wild dog first realized they could coexist in a synergistic fashion. Since that time the relationship between humans and the domesticated animals in their surroundings has evolved from casual co-habitant to recruited co-worker and protector, to embraced and beloved family member. They have morphed from holding the status of an animal (defined by Webster as being: a) to that of a pet (defined by Webster as being: an animal that is kept as a companion and cared for affectionately). In some cases, they have become the equivalent of family members and in some cases, child surrogates.
The reasons for the migration of our pets from the fields to the dog house, to the kitchen and finally the bedroom are many but chief among them has been the continued recognition of the value of these creatures in our personal life... be that value to our families, to our health, our security or to our emotional well-being. There are very few relationships in contemporary life that will with such predictability deliver the free expression of unconditional love and appreciation such as that expressed by a pet to its owner, master or pet parent. This enhanced role of animals in our lives underpins the relationship that people have with their pets and compels them to consider animals differently than at any previous time in history.
Consider that many owners today view themselves as pet parents. Consider that unlike any time prior to the year 2000, pets are now routinely involved in weddings, major holiday celebrations and other deeply personal family events. Pets are treated to doggie and kitty day care, pet spas, pet hotels and family holidays. Families seek out pet friendly resorts and pet accessible airlines. Pets are celebrated in cards and literature; they are depicted on our currency; they travel with us on commercial air flights and even adorn our automobile windows in the form of decals on our family vehicles. Recognize that only 50 years ago, back yards were adorned with structures known as dog houses! What a paradigm shift we have seen.
As noted by authors Marty Becker DVM in his book, The Healing Power of Pets and Dan Bryant in his book, Care for the Soul, pets are welcome in many hospitals, senior care facilities and hospice environments because of the value they add to the lives of people in those environments. The healing power of pets is well known and documented by those engaged in pet-facilitated therapy. Assistance pets today help detect impending seizure activity, peanut allergies, coronary events, psychiatric disorders, changes in blood glucose levels and changes in general health. Some pets have been successful at detecting tumors that otherwise evade detection by advanced imaging technologies. Their inclusion in general therapies, whether to lower patient heart rates and blood pressure or raise painful patients' endorphin levels and provide relief from pain has been nothing short of amazing. Survival times of people who survived an initial coronary event have been shown to be considerably better when the affected individuals have one or more pets. The impact of pets on school children has been equally amazing. Developmentally delayed children and children denied a loving home have benefitted from receiving a pet. The Mayo Clinic's Sanford Pediatric Center runs live animal feeds on ZooTV into their pediatric reception area and nursing wards to allow children to connect with animals and receive benefits similar to those reported for pet facilitated therapy. Children who have access to pets have been shown to experience an increase in their IQ test scores when tested before and after acquiring a pet. Pets have also been shown to have a calming and mitigating effect on the negative behaviors of bullies.
Just how strong has this relationship grown? A survey of couples who own pets by USA Today in September of 2010 showed that 53% of couples would part with their human relationship partner before parting with their pet! A poll of 3000 single females planning to marry was conducted by a US insurance company and revealed that 42% of respondents had included or planned to include their pet in their wedding. In 2010 during the second worst economy in the history of the United States, a member of the US House of Representatives introduced a legislative bill to grant income tax deductions for basic pet care similar to the deduction now available for childcare (HR 3501, Humanity and Pets Partnered through the Years, the Happy Act). As Dr. Becker is oft quoted, "Pets aren't our whole lives, but they make our lives whole." Pets mean a great deal to people.
That brings us then to consider what do clients want from their veterinarian? Support, assistance, information and quality medical care for their family member. They love their animals and they see those animals very differently than perhaps as recently as 25–30 years before. They aren't "just a cat" or "just a dog" anymore. They have names and they are celebrated as beloved members of the family. People do care that they pets are kept well, healthful and pain-free.
The next time you are engaging a new client in the exam room during a wellness visit, ask them how long they would like their beloved pet to live. The responses I hear most often from clients when I ask that question include: "as long as possible", "forever", "years and years and years." In truth, I am not good enough to guarantee that a pet could be made to live forever, but what a stunning opportunity to respond with an invitation to partner in complete preventative health care going forward! That invitation might sound something like this: "Ms. Jones, regrettably "forever" is beyond the capacity of my medical skills and ability. That said, if we can work together to provide the best preventative medical care, nutrition, husbandry and socialization for your pet, we can help him or her to live into their full genetic potential so that they can enjoy as long and pain-free a life in your family as possible. Would you be interested in working together towards that end?"
When clients present an animal to us for examination, we must remember that it's not about us! It's about our client and their perspective of the animal they entrust to our care. We must meet our client where they stand and engage them in an effective and ethical way that leads to a recommendation for best care... every patient. Surveys executed by pet health industry companies show that 90% of clients want a clear, cogent recommendation from their veterinarian regarding how best to treat their pet. Far fewer owners (around 20%) actually believe they received one. Consider running a set of focus groups to explore why folks continue to come to your practice and what they like about the practice. Find other pet owners who have never been to your hospital...and explore why they have never been a client. Consider asking former clients who were at one time, regular clients why they left your practice. If you are open to learning, there will be plenty of feedback for you to consider.
The truth is that our clients already enjoy the human-pet bond. They don't need their veterinarian to experience those wonderful feelings nor to garner the benefits of having a pet as a member of their family and a part of their lives. Our job is to interface with those owners and celebrate their bond by advocating on behalf of their pet and educating the owner to ensure that the owner is well informed about the care the pet needs and deserves in order to have a long, healthful and pain free life. Our presence can prolong and enhance the time that owners have with their beloved pets.
We have one other important responsibility...and that is to inform, educate and protect humans and animals where they interface. In the United States, data from the Center for Disease Control shows that dog bites pose a significant risk for bite injury to humans and particularly to children 5–9 years of age, notably to their faces, necks, and arms. In 2003, survey data from 2001 showed that over 4.7 million dog bite injuries were recorded, 800,000 of those bites required medical care and 35 deaths were recorded (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly). It has been anticipated that as pet ownership continues to increase, opportunities for dog bites will increase as well.
The Australian Companion Animal Council estimated in a June 2007 position paper that approximately 100,000 dog bite injuries occur annually in Australia, with approximately 12–14,000 injuries requiring medical treatment at an annual cost of over $7,000,000.
As experts on the health and behavior of animals and particularly domesticated pets, we have a considerable obligation and opportunity to protect the human-pet bond by educating the public and particularly school aged children about dogs, safety around dogs and dog bite prevention. To this end, the AVMA in the US and the AVA (AVA PetPEP) in Australia along with other groups in Australia (Delta Society - Delta Dog Safe, Royal Children's Hospital - Dogs 'N' Kids, The Government of NSW - SPOT Safe Pets Out There) have developed programs that teach safe behaviors around pets, selection of the "right" pet for your family, good care of pets and good treatment of all animals. Through our active participation in these programs and our presence in the public schools as knowledgeable professionals who are ready and willing to educate can we bring down the incidence of these unfortunate and traumatic injuries.
1. Becker M. HealingPower of Pets. Hyperion Press; 2002. ISBN-13: 978-0786868087.
2. Canfield J, Hansen M, Becker M, Kine C. Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul. Health Communications; 1998. ISBN-10: 1558745718.