September is Responsible Dog Ownership Month. Awesome, right? A whole month where we can talk about preventive care and a good diet and grooming and exercising and loving these wonderful animals we share our homes with. But even amongst veterinary professionals working in a state of the art hospital, the definition of "responsible" pet ownership varies.
Is it responsible to buy expensive clothing for your tiny dog and carry said dog around in a purse all day? Is it responsible to get a highly active dog and leave it at home while you work all day? Responsible to leave 6 cups of dry food out for your cat and leave him alone while you go on vacation for 5 days? Responsible to buy a dog from a breeder instead of checking out the shelter? To surrender your cat to the shelter because your newborn baby has an allergy to the cat? To decide not to invest in basic obedience classes because your dog won’t come into contact with strangers in the backyard? Leave your dog in the car while you run errands (it’s not hot outside, I checked)? Go on Facebook looking for medical advice because you can’t afford a trip to the ER right now? Euthanize your cat because he has a urinary obstruction? Refuse all vaccines except rabies because you don’t want to risk immune stimulation? Put your dog with cancer through a thoracotomy because you want just a couple more weeks with him?
As veterinary professionals we face these scenarios every day. Some of these things mentioned I have done, or currently do. Am I a terrible pet owner? An irresponsible one? What is responsible? That term is up for debate in many of these situations, and the reason that we run into trouble when we put our feelings and values into other pet owner’s situations.
In talking with many technicians, a large portion of their compassion fatigue and burnout comes from the people aspect of veterinary medicine. It comes from endless days of trying to convince owners over the phone that they should have their pet seen. It comes from giving SQ fluids to the pregnant Pit Bull you just diagnosed with parvo because that is all the owner can afford, or it comes from keeping that critical patient alive just one more day because the owners are not ready to say goodbye. We look at those decisions through our experienced eyes, make judgments, and feel disappointment.
I want to challenge everybody to stop assuming that all of us have the same definition of responsible pet ownership. And it’s going to be a challenge. Many of us have pets and no children (or at least love our pets more than our children, admit it, some days that’s true…) and it’s extremely difficult to not get upset when we see animals not treated to our standards. But think for just a moment that those people are doing the best they can for that pet. Instead of hanging up the phone and rolling your eyes at the questions the new kitten owner has been asking you, be glad that they called a veterinary hospital and didn’t ask Dr. Internet. We have the responsibility to educate, to offer advice and our help. But realize that not everyone can live up to our standards of pet ownership. Cultural differences, income differences, priority differences, regional differences, there are a lot of issues at play.
My next challenge is for all of us to be compassionate judgers. We are going to judge, we can’t help it. But stop yourself from vomiting all of your judgment onto those around you and ruining their day as well. Take a deep breath, assume good intent from the other person, and do the best job you can with what’s available to you. Those of us in referral practices: let’s not place our interpretation of responsible medicine on everyone around us. Take opportunities to educate and do the best with what we are given.
I’m not advocating accepting mediocrity; I’m advocating self-preservation and a long and happy career. Continue to dress your pet in trendy clothes, spend insane amounts of money on the best food out there, give them the best and most up to date medical care, let them sleep with their head on your pillow every night. But also allow for some different interpretations of responsible, and take every opportunity you can to educate, support, and make your world a better place one happy pet at a time.