Pet med ethics

Just because you can do something medically, should you? Particularly when the patient is an animal?

We’re a household of aging cats. Except for the feisty shelter kitten we brought home last year, everyone’s a geezer. One has arthritis. Another is on daily meds for hypothyroidism. And yet another just had surgery for a hernia.

A visit to the vet’s office is never less than $300, and usually more like $500. There’s flea and tick repellant, blood tests, dental work, vaccinations and the range of illnesses that come with age.

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Our latest visit revealed a new tool in the modern veterinarian’s arsenal. A very elderly, nearly motionless dog was being treated with a laser while we waited for our appointment. The laser, we were told, reduces inflammation and pain.

“It’s a great tool for chronic conditions as well as post-op healing,” we were told.

After the procedure (painless, we’re told) the dog lay sprawled across his owner’s lap. If ever an animal looked like there was no joy in his life whatsoever, it was him.

I’ve had animals all my life, dogs, cats, horses, even a donkey. I’ve been faced with enormous vet bills and I’ve scraped together the money when it was necessary. But how much is necessary?

There was an extensive discussion on the ethics of spending $25,000 for pet health care in The New York Times on April 9. Advances in medical technology have made procedures possible that simply weren’t in a veterinarian’s arsenal before, unless you took your pet to a high-tech facility like Cornell. Heart stents for Fido and chemo for Kitty are becoming routine offers. But there’s a price, and not just in dollars.

If we agree to a major medical intervention for our companions, is it really for them?

I know a couple who recently took their aging Yorkie to Cornell for surgery on his cataracts. The outcome is great — he can see and he’s a happy (though still neurotic) little dog. But I question the days in a hospital, pain, bandages, strange smells, major upheaval for a nervous animal and long days at home in a spaceman collar, confined as he was to a small area, frustrated, confused and uncomfortable. Would it have been kinder to simply let him be a blind dog? Who was that surgery for?

My crankiest old cat is arthritic. He’s also slowly failing. The signs are there: he sleeps more, he’s grumpier with the other cats, sometimes his breathing seems funny. How much should I intervene? I delayed taking him to the vet for fear they’d be pushing batteries of tests that would only tell me what was already obvious, while stressing out an old cat who just wants to sit quietly and be petted.

Thankfully, a new veterinarian in the area who seems to be on my wave length: Don’t overdo the interventions for geriatric animals, depending on the overall health picture. Dr. Eileen Jefferson has started a practice called “Ethical Veterinary.” Her partner and right-hand man is Brian Shapiro, former head of the Ulster County SPCA and a former county legislator.

They make house calls. She examined my cranky cat, pronounced him pretty fit for his age. She came prepared to do the gamut of labwork if needed, but she saw no red alerts. She offered some joint supplements to ease his stiffness and recommended he be allowed to simply be so long as he seems comfortable with no major changes. He stumped off with a definite I-told-you-so swing of his tail.

It’s a fine line. When our animals are miserable, when their futures seem to hold nothing but needles, drugs, scalpels and discomfort (even pain), is it cruel to keep them with us? The one thing we can offer them is a painless death, something we still cannot offer humans, even when we can’t control their pain or avert the inevitable. It’s an incredibly hard decision to euthanize our animal friends, and yet it’s a final gift, too. It’s not something to be done lightly, but I have been in situations where it’s the right choice.

My suffering cat, whose lust for biting kneecaps and diamond rings has descended into glassy-eyed lethargy, showed me when he’d had enough. My beloved dog, who could no longer stand up, made it clear it was time. Quality of life is what counts, in my opinion. Even if I had all the money in the world to try some expensive intervention, it wouldn’t have been right. The bottom line isn’t about me — it’s about them.

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