Dogs and vets’ fees took centre stage in the UK media yesterday when they featured on the BBC’s Today programme, the most popular show on Radio 4, with over 7 million listeners every week. One of the presenters, Evan Davis, brought his whippet, Mr Whippy, into the studio, and a discussion on vets’ fees followed. Mr Davis recounted how he’d spent £4000 on fixing Mr Whippy’s broken leg (including a course of hydrotherapy) while fellow presenter Justin Webb admitted that it had cost £5000 to save the life of his dog Toffee after he’d swallowed a sock.
In both cases, the costs had been covered by insurance (as it is for around half of British pet owners), but the incidents provoked a debate about the size of vets’ bills, and the ethical dilemma about how much should be spent on treating pets.
As Davis put it: “When we got the dog, I thought… he’s like a watch – if the repair is going to cost more than the new one – he cost £500 … then you basically throw the dog away and replace it with a new one. But of course, once you’ve got the dog, you don’t think that way”. The presenters then discussed how much they’d be prepared to spend of their own money if their pets weren’t insured, and Davis summed his view up neatly: “If you compare the dog’s leg to the life of a small child in a poor country, obviously the child prevails. But if you compare the dog’s leg to a holiday, I would pay for the dog’s leg any day.”
I suspect that most pet owners would share this view. Dogs become part of the family, worthy of significant sacrifices in our personal lives.
Davis then came up with an interesting idea: just as the National Health Service has the National Institute for Care Excellence (NICE) providing national guidance and advice to improve health care, why isn’t there a pet equivalent – perhaps a Veterinary Institute for Clinical Excellence (VICE). The presenters pointed out that there is a financial temptation for vets towards to do unethical treatments at huge costs, extending the life by not very much, possibly causing suffering. So should there be some way of countering this temptation? Should there be some guidance body to make judgements on how far it is right to go?
The problem, of course, is that every case is individual. And the wisdom of proceeding with a case can only be judged properly with the benefit of hindsight, when it’s all over.