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.
My parent’s cat was seventeen when she developed serious weight loss and vomiting. The question they faced was clear: should they treat her or should they simply accept that she was an elderly cat, in need of euthanasia? In the end, they chose to have her referred to a feline specialist: she was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, underwent a £1500 operation to have her thyroid gland removed, and she lived until she was twenty three years of age. Another elderly cat might have only lived only for a few months despite treatment.
So if we had an advisory body on such matters, who’s to say that they would have made the right call in each of the above cases?
There’s no need for another layer of expensive bureaucracy. Owners just need to engage with their vets, asking simple questions.“What are the options for my pet? What will they cost? What is the likely outcome?”
And vets need to give honest answers. “These are the possible courses of action, which will cost this much. And this is what’s likely to happen!”
That’s as much as vets can do. The decision, then, on whether or not to proceed is over to the owner. And sometimes they’ll choose one way, sometimes another. Sometimes they’ll make the right call, sometimes they won’t. We will only ever know with hindsight.
It will always be like this. No Institute of Excellence, however well intentioned, would ever make it easier or more likely to find a better answer.