This week, my wife and I had “the talk.” You know, the one about end-of-life issues. How much care is too much? Do we want doctors to take extraordinary action to save a life? At what point should it end? Who decides?
We weren’t talking about ourselves. We long ago made those choices and have health care directives and living wills. We’ve made clear to our children how we feel about all of that.
“The talk” we are having now isn’t about us. It’s about our dog, The Princess. Let me tell you what most pet owners know. These are easier decisions to make for ourselves than for the pets God entrusted to our care.
At our age, we recall the days when a veterinarian’s serious diagnosis meant there was nothing more that could be done. In those days, the bone cancer diagnosed in The Princess’s leg would have meant a short period of palliative care, followed soon by euthanasia. If they’d had the money, my parents could never imagine spending thousands of dollars to keep the family pet alive for a few more months or even a few more years. Furthermore, vets didn’t have the medicine it required.
That’s all changed. Contemporary animal health care now offers many life-lengthening alternatives. For our old dog, a third bout with cancer means choosing between keeping her comfortable and losing her within a few weeks or amputating the offending leg and putting her through a course of chemotherapy.
Many of you have been there. Pet owners face these sorts of choices every day. Most options carry a large price tag. So, today, with so many lifesaving options, the decision to say “enough is enough,” though it might be the right one, carries the guilt of considering the financial concerns that naturally accompany the choices that need to be made.
According to an article in the New York Times, the American Pet Products Association estimates that Americans spend more than $53 billion a year on their pets. That number isn’t broken down into how much goes for pet food and toys or vet care. However, the article concludes it is reasonable to believe that, as with humans, about 90% of that spending buys health care in the last 10% of a pet’s life.
None of this is a criticism of veterinarians. Veterinarian medicine is doing what it should be doing. Through research and advancing science, they are finding cures and treatments as pet owners hope and believe they should. Vets are highly skilled and well educated. Like many other professionals, they face crushing student debt, a penalty for choosing to devote themselves to caring for our pets.
A 2013 article in the New England Journal of Medicine says veterinarians have the highest debt-to-income ratio among all health professionals. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, that debt load is a key element leading to the fact that veterinary medicine is one of the four professions with the highest rates of suicide.
Our vet is wonderful. She loves The Princess as much as we do. She spent a great deal of time with us, explaining options and detailing the costs involved. She was clear that she didn’t judge. If we chose palliative care, she would not question our choice. There was no pressure, except that we put on ourselves. She assured us that dogs adjust very quickly to getting around on three legs and that the chemo experience for dogs is far less gruesome than what many humans experience.
It isn’t only vet care that changed since I had my first pet in the 1950s. It’s also how people feel about their pets. The relationship between pets and pet owners is far different. My parents liked our little boxer we named Jiggs, but they never thought of him as their child or part of the family. That’s changed.
And so, please pray for our little girl, The Princess, as she learns to walk on three legs and begins chemo.
Rodger McDaniel lives in Laramie and is the pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne. Email: email@example.com.