Our dog Sputnik recently took a spill off Big Ag's lap onto the hardwood floor and developed a limp earlier this week. Since I spent some time working in a vet's office as an assistant in the past, I knew how to examine the leg and his joints to make sure nothing was broken or his hip dislocated. But the question always comes up when you own either livestock or pets: When do you call in the services of the vet?
One thing I can tell you about vets today that was probably not widely true 100 years ago is that "growing your practice" is a huge goal among many new veterinarians. There are constant advertisements and junk mail which arrive at your friendly neighborhood vet's office encouraging them in this. Breakout sessions like "how to increase your profit margins," "how to effectively have your existing clients increase your bottom line," and "how more testing = more profits and better care" is not uncommon to see. It's all quite out in the open. Some vets buy into it, some do not, and for us pet owners the trick can be telling the difference before our checkbook becomes drained.
But it's a little more complex than that too, because the ones who do buy into it -- who have taken the workshops and seminars -- actually have a good justification for doing so. After all, spending more on each animal that comes through the door is not only good for business, it's good for the animal. Tale this example scenario:
You bring your dog into the vet with what seems to be a bladder infection. An old school vet will send your dog home with an antibiotic or sulfa drug and tell you if it's not better within a few days to come back in. Hopefully that will fix things -- most of the time it will -- but not all the time.
A new school vet will insist on running a blood panel to check for infection and kidney function, while also strongly encouraging you to allow them to do a bladder ultrasound, in order to rule out cysts or tumors.
The visit to the old school vet will cost you about $60 bucks (office visit plus meds). The visit to the new school vet will set you back about $400 that or more, if you agree to their diagnostic protocol. But there's no question that all those tests improve the chances of diagnosing your dog's issue correctly. The question is, do you want to spend that much, or take your chances on the pills and see what happens?
We're now in the position where we can provide first-world health care to our pets, if we so choose. If your dog has a tumor, you can now see that he gets chemotherapy. But is that kind of care in the pet's best interest? That's a highly personal question for the owner, and delves into a moral area that's as grey as a foggy day at the beach. I'm not sure I could put my pet through chemotherapy, because I'm not even sure I'd want to do it myself, if I had a serious case of cancer.
Of course if you're raising livestock, you also have to draw the line on what does and does not warrant a large-animal vet call. We would not call the vet out for a chicken, for example, but would for a sheep or goat. We would not do expensive MRIs or ultrasounds on any outside animal, and only on our inside pets if it would lead to a simple and damn-near guaranteed successful treatment protocol.
We euthanize when necessary, whether it is a dog, chicken, or horse that is suffering and not expected to survive. But if the animal could survive, then we will do what we can, within certain financial limits. We've spent good money treating colicky horses because it's an easily treated condition with complete recovery and many more years of life possible afterward. But when faced with end-stage incurable Equine Cushings disease (this after many months of providing hugely expensive imported prescription meds to try and treat the lesser symptoms of it) we chose to have the vet come and euthanize our horse, rather than allow her to suffer.
So you do what you can and try and trust your instincts. Regarding the most recently injured animal here, my own instincts were thankfully correct; after giving Sputnik half a baby aspirin and making him rest for a few days, his strained leg appears to be healing rapidly. But in this day and age, it's very difficult to know how much its appropriate to spend on a sick animal, whether it's the sheep out in your field or the cat on your lap.
But I think the motto of not wanting our animal charges to suffer unnecessarily is always a good yardstick.