Veterinarians have to keep everybody happy. We have to keep the patients happy so they won't bite or kick us, and because they are fuzzy widdle cuties who we love (in most cases). We have to keep clients happy so they will come back, help their pets, do the things we ask them to do and pay us. Most of them are not fuzzy.
So what are we to do when we see a patient who is the obvious victim of neglect? It's hard to keep the clients happy if you accuse them of animal neglect – something that society puts right up there with mandatory bunions and April 15th. I am not talking abuse here, abuse is an active process whereby the human/troglodyte grabs the shoe/brick/fist and subjects the innocent to the negative effects of instantaneous deceleration. Abuse is volitional and done with malice. Neglect creeps in and sets up shop without making a sound. Neglect is the silent lodger, living passively in a dim home. Abuse is a raucous and well-lit party next door at 3am that gets the cops called on it.
Neglect, in my opinion, is far more common than abuse. I have seen abuse cases by the score, and they always take their toll on everyone involved – none more so than the victim. Abuse cases usually generate a great deal of interest, activity and emotion due to the hateful nature of the act. They are dramatic and get noticed. Heat and light.
Neglect, on the other hand, can slip in the front door of the clinic and out the back door without so much as a sideways glance. There may be the lingering feeling that something was amiss, something didn’t sum up, but rarely do they evince the tooth marks and exposed flesh of an abuse case. The matted fur, long toenails, lean frame, and redness around the eyes that say ‘please’ just don’t have the same shrill, alarm bell quality as the broken bones, bleeding and lacerations of abuse. Neglect is abuse stretched thin and purified over time until it is barely noticeable.
I would estimate that I see 100 more neglect cases in the clinic than I do abuse cases. Many are pets who have grown old with their owners, both parties suffering from the burden of the years. Days pass and what started as something small grows into something larger day by day, like the Greek legend of Milo of Croton – carrying a calf every day as a youngster so that by the time he reached adulthood he could carry a grown bull. The small abnormalities like a lump on the skin, weight loss, and increased thirst seem trivial at first. Those trapped by neglect don’t see each endpoint the way we do in the clinic. They only see one day bleed inexorably into the next, oblivious to the imperceptible creep of slow disease.
These are not bad people – that’s another important distinction from the abusers. In most cases, I see them bring their animals in for medical help, which is kind of de facto evidence of good intent. They are trying to help their animals by getting the main problem or one of its side streams, addressed, fixed, and noticed. They just lack the perspective to see what shape their pets are in… perhaps even what shape they are in.
After a while we tend to stop noticing neglect too; we medical people charged with preventing animal suffering. It is our failure as well. We see so many neglected animals that it is easy to be just as complicit as the owners and either fail to recognize it or fail to speak up about it. I’m not sure which is worse – to see a neglected animal and keep quiet, or to have become so numb that we don’t even notice it in the first place. Writing about it, for me, wakes me up to it – makes it real again. It’s something I should look for and try and avenge, or at least improve.
There’s hope though. Sometimes the visit into the hospital and a heartfelt discussion of what needs to be done can spur the neglectful to take action. Perhaps to remember why they should care, what their responsibility is and why they got a pet in the first place. The relationship can be rekindled. If I can gently pry their eyelids open to the need for regular care most pet owners will start taking better care of their pets. Not all – some slink out the back door of the clinic and chain the dog up again to the cinderblock chain-link hardscrabble back yard. But enough will.