Pet Ethics


I have been watching with interest the British series Supervet chronicling the daily life of a veterinarian  specializing in difficult orthopedic and neurological surgery mostly on dogs and cats. He has pioneered the development and application of new procedures and bionics including custom designed hip and knee joints. Needless to say the cost of these procedures can amount to thousands of dollars.

As an example…


The procedure to give this feline new legs took three hours. During that time, the surgical team drilled  pegs into one of his ankle bones on each leg.  They then coated the prosthetics with hydroxyapatite to encourage bone cells to grow onto the metal.  This is amazing stuff.

My  editor has questioned the ethics of this  expense on pets. Should not this money be better spent on the  betterment of the human condition helping the homeless or hungry children in Sudan? Now she does love animals and cries when they have to be put down on the show. She is just not comfortable with the spending of such large sums on pet health care.

My initial counter argument was that people can do what they like with their money as long as it doesn’t hurt others, which would be an act of commission which is  both immoral and sometimes illegal. Not helping others with whom we have no bond or connection but who might be suffering in some out of sight out of mind place is perhaps an act of omission. This is not immoral. There is no ethical obligation here. Furthermore if I saw a person having a seizure on the street and did nothing to aid them (an act of omission), is this unethical or immoral? Omissions are judged less harshly than actions because they tend to leave less overt evidence of wrongdoing.

However human beings are neuro-wired towards empathy and altruism. So it is in our nature to help others. It makes us feel good. Speaking for myself, I would indeed aid the epileptic, medical training notwithstanding.

Democratic socialist governance, in the interest of ensuring a just and civilized  society through equitable taxation, makes sure we follow through on our bio design and provide homeless shelters, universal health care and various social net safety programs. So any action beyond this is possibly redundant, purely  voluntary and a matter of choice as opposed to a moral obligation.

I was told that my attitude that people therefore can do what they like with their funds was reminiscent of  an ego centric republican mentality and reflective  of everything wrong with the USA. As a devout socialist, this was a painful indictment.

This seemed like a good time to switch to psychology and take a break  from political philosophizing:

Human beings bond. They are socially programmed by evolution to do so.

So we form pair attachments and procreate and form linkages that help perpetuate the species.

However over the past 50+years or so our attitudes towards pets has changed from chattels or disposable livestock  to family member with whom we form bonds as strong as or more so  than with fellow humans.

This process is perpetuated by anthropomorphization-the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non human entities and is an innate tendency of human psychology.

Furthermore the promulgation of social media has made us more distant from each other and less prone to form pair bonds. We have become alienated and xenophobic.

Enter felines and  canines. They give us unconditional positive regard and fill the voids that are part of the human condition- the more I know people, the more I prefer my dog Mark Twain said.

Many of the pet owners on Supervet appear lonely and eccentric. Others seem to prefer animal over human bonds or at least feel they are more reliable.

In light of these observations who is to say that spending thousands of dollars on hips, knees and spines for 4 legged persons  is ethically suspect or indicative of psychopathology or another example of wretched excess? With regards the latter, people don’t really  need nor are emotionally gratified by a Ferrari in the driveway or a wi-fi refrigerator.

On the other hand,  many are experiencing the pleasures of  chronically raised dopamine and endorphin levels  by this….



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3 Responses to “Pet Ethics”

  1. Carole Kocian says:

    The care of the family pet has almost achieved a level of comparison to the humans with which pets live. Many would go to extremes to find ways to extend their pet’s life and elevate its quality of life for as long as possible. Having a family pet means that the humans will no doubt outlive the animal. An experienced and practical pet owner will have learned over time that certain dogs, for instance, will live longer than others mostly depending on size, all things being equal in terms of preventive care. Purebreds of any type are more likely to have genetic problems due to inbreeding. Small dogs live longer. I’ve always had a dog or cat or dogs and cats. As mentioned, years back veterinary care was cursory and pretty much limited to preventive medical intervention. As time has passed it seems there are innumerable types of pet rescue organizations dealing with all kinds of domestic animals needing rescue from abuse or neglect, being stray or surrendered by an owner where rehoming is sought by the organization. I have followed the saga of a Sheltie (miniature collie) that had a brain tumor and seizures that were life threatening.

    The owners sought care for the dog from a veterinary school in Minnesota and experimental surgery was performed to remove the tumor and a vaccine developed from the tumor tissue to help prevent recurrence. The surgery was successful and used as a model for brain surgery on children with similar brain tumors. Furtherance of such procedures into human health care is often the case as demonstrated by use of animals in experimental science to achieve treatments and cures for both animals and humans.

    Personally we have had a dog that developed cataracts have the surgery for removal and artificial lenses implanted. There are pet opthalmologists, orthopedists, oncologists, radiologists and more readily at hand in most large cities where such practices are not as numerous as the general veterinarians but are quite busy rendering sophisticated care for family pets. Prosthetic limbs have become more common in certain circles along with such things as “wheelchairs” for pets.

    The future of pet care is now and families with beloved pets will seek and receive the advanced methods available to extend life and quality of life for their domestic animals. I don’t think that displaces concern for and care of human health at all.

  2. kristina Nadreau says:

    I am a veterinarian. I have always had empathy for all the creatures. When I choose to provide medical care for my neighbors dogs (in Belize) and not provide medical care for my neighbors, it is because I view the dogs as having no choices and no means to improve their lot. Whereas the humans do have choices and means. even in worse case scenarios, humans have more options.

    I did provide very expensive knee surgery for a bitch I loved.
    She was able to move better post op but it became obvious that she was still uncomfortable. I let her go at a young age of 11.

    HOWEVER, since then, having experienced personal joint surgery and the bodily decline that inevitably, YES INEVITABLY, accompanies aging, I would never provide any bone or joint work to an aging pet, because it does not really work. Pain free full function enjoyed in youth and middle age declines. Without fail, regardless of excercise, weight control, medication blah blah blah.
    Surgery may restore partial mobility and some pallitive pain relief however pain will continue and will progressively decrease. I have continued to experience discomfort after knee and hip surgery, which is typical. I would not choose to inflict this on a creature that can not verbally express a need for pain relief and can not go to the pharmacy and get pain relief. Care givers can only guess at the needs for pain relief of the non-verbal animals.

    Most of the extraordinary surgical medical work done to correct defects and disease is a huge waste of resources be it for man or beast. I know I know… cruel to suggest that a brain tumor may be the an OK loss of life for all…. animals, children and adults. I have arrived at my conclusions slowly over the course of many yearsof experience and observation. I spent a long acareer in the human medical device industry thus have had an opportunity to see much cause and effect in both animal and human medicine.

  3. MIsty D says:

    In short, I think if a person has the money they can do what they want with it…Ethically, I think it’s definitely a case by case basis. How much money spent, how it affects the owner financially, and most importantly (in my opinion) the quality of life of the animal. I don’t happen to believe that animals truly understand we are trying to help them if we give them the kind of extensive reconstructive surgeries that we do with humans. They can’t tell us if they’re having phantom pain. Many animals don’t appear to be suffering unless they’re minutes from death because in nature if they look vulnerable they’re done for. As deeply as I love my dog, if he were severely injured and likely to live the rest of his life in pain or discomfort that he couldn’t express to me and given my limited funds.. I’d put him down. I don’t believe in anything human or otherwise suffering just because I want to have it on the planet with me. I see dogs that appear to live well with three legs, but if that expense will put the owner into homelessness or unrecoverable debt… I’d say let the animal go. I think my animal rescue friends wouldn’t agree with me. But, after working in an animal rescue in Mexico and leaving it to work with kids in Belize I feel deeply that we need to care for humans first. In fact, that is why I left the animal rescue to work with humans. The PETA people were pissed at me. I don’t care. I go further though in that I believe that humans who are suffering should have a much easier path to euthanasia. If there is a situation where we’d put an animal down, yet we force a human to live through the pain of it when they’d prefer to die… I think that’s unethical.

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