Are Pets a Luxury? Is the Human-Animal Bond Worth It?

The short and sweet answers are: No and Unabashedly Yes.

The Benefits of the Human-Animal Bond

The joy I see in the face of a four-year-old child, the daughter of a single mother, as she adjusts the pink flower collar on her new kitten while playing in my waiting room can’t be beat. The glow of pride from her mom is a beautiful thing to behold. The crotchety client who complains about the “darned dog” when he brings in his deceased wife’s Jack Russell terrier for a monthly nail trim warms my heart. That “darned dog” gives him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I see the positive and lasting effects of the human-animal bond every day in the animal hospital.

We know that children who care for pets learn great lessons in empathy, compassion, and responsibility toward others. Quiet time brushing a dog, reading to a cat, or cleaning out a gerbil cage shows kids that a little hard work reaps its own rewards. Walking the dog can become a family-centric activity that takes away from solitary, arguably anti-social pursuits, like playing video war games or gossiping on Facebook. Pets have the unique ability to bring families and friends together.  Studies show even feeding fish can help decrease anxiety and improve social interactions with other human beings.

Times Have Changed

Our grandparents fed the farm dogs and alley cats scraps from the table. The animals were lucky to receive a rabies shot every few years. Unwanted kittens were given away to become mousers in a relative’s barn. Costs associated with owning a pet in this way were relatively low. Most of us are second- or third- generation animal owners who have now brought our pets into the home to live with us. We consider ourselves pet parents and treat our cats and dogs as family.

This transition has led to an effect on our household budget, and the impact has led some people to question the affordability of pets. The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) estimates that food for an average 40-pound dog will cost over $600/year, and cat owners will pay close to $300/year for a quality diet. When veterinary care, toys, grooming, and daycare or boarding are included, pet families can pay thousands of dollars a year on their pets. The OVMA now includes pet insurance in its calculations, which can help decrease the out-of-pocket costs in the case of accidents or illness. Read more about “Fifi, Fido, and Finances” at http://publications.ovma.org/i/123911/0.

Money Versus Love?

Veterinary care is one of the most expensive factors in caring for a pet. Veterinarians are doing a better job treating animals than we did twenty years ago. We have in-house laboratories and x-ray machines. Our surgery suites are equipped with better instruments and safer anaesthetics. We are better at detecting disease earlier and treating health problems more successfully. Our clients have a greater education about all the amazing treatments possible when they go online and talk to Dr. Google and Dr. Bing.

Veterinarians cared about the animals just as much twenty or thirty years ago as we do today. We simply didn’t have the equipment or expertise to do things as completely. Societal attitudes toward pets have also changed greatly as we have actively sought better ways to treat our patients with less pain and improved treatments. We are proud to insist that university researchers and big corporations find the best diagnostics and therapies for the animals entrusted to our care. The only problem is that the costs of “doing the best” must be shared by our clients as well. How do we balance money versus love when it comes to our pets?

Communication-The Necessary Factor

The best veterinarian-client-patient relationship starts with knowing your veterinarian and feeling comfortable that she or he values the bond you have with your pet. Ensure that your pet has regular check-ups to develop that rapport-for both you and the doc and your pet and the doc. You need to trust that your veterinarian has your pet’s best interest at heart when making recommendations. Routine exams also allow your doctor to look for early signs of health problems.

A good relationship with your veterinarian can help with the tough decisions faced after serious accidents or severe illness. Often, the answers don’t lie in your financial situation but in what’s best for the pet in terms of long-term prognosis and relief of suffering. Ask lots of questions. Understand all of your pet’s options. Be an informed pet parent.

Back to the Title Question

Are pets a luxury? More importantly, can we afford not to have them in our lives? I, for one, am a fierce believer in the huge gains for our humanity when we love and nurture pets in our homes. Yes, we must be practical about the potential costs and recognize family limits when it comes to veterinary care. We also need to understand the priceless friendship and education the little kitten offers that four-year-old girl and her mom. We are privileged to share in the bittersweet joy brought to the older gentleman by his Jack Russell terrier. The human-animal bond is ours to promote and cherish-each and every day.