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The dark side of the bond
Do some clients go too far in their attachment to their pets? If so, what do we do about it?
Recently at the North American Veterinary Conference, I heard a speaker whose comments I'm still thinking about a week later. The speaker was not a veterinarian but author and photographer Jon Katz, who's written many books about his life with dogs that also touch on society's relationship with pets as a whole.
Here's Katz's provocative proposition: There's a dark side to the human-animal bond. More and more people, he says-especially in the United States-are becoming attached to their pets in a way that's unhealthy both for them and for animals. Pets were never meant to be a substitute for human companionship, Katz asserts, but as more people become detached from family, friends, and nature, they turn to their pets in an attempt to fill those voids.
The result? Infantilized pets that are overfed, untrained, and misunderstood, which makes them more likely to be euthanized. These pets also tend to experience unnaturally prolonged lives through medical and surgical intervention that harms rather than enhances quality of life. You can read more about Katz's theories at bedlamfarm.com/blog.
Several thoughts have come to mind since I heard Katz speak. The first is a quote from the movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs, where the veterinarian played by Jeanine Garofolo says, “You should love your pets, but you shouldn't loooove your pets.” My next thought, naturally, centers on my relationship with my own cat. Do I overanthropomorphize her? When she dies, will my grief be out of proportion, considering that she's an animal and not a human family member? Is this why I've always been squeamish about calling her my “baby” and cooing to her as I would an infant (even though I still do it when no one else is around)?
And finally, I think of this Web site. We often refer to pets as your clients' “four-legged family members” or “furry children.” We do this quite intentionally, in honor of the human-animal bond and the role you play in it. But recently a reader criticized us for our choice of words. And at the time, I was indignant. Veterinarians' recognition that clients view their pets as children is their stock in trade. If they don't “get it,” those clients will go to another veterinarian who does. But now I wonder, is this going too far? Where's the line between honoring the bond and enabling distorted, unhealthy attitudes?
Of course, this discussion has more nuances than I can address here, so I put the question to you: First, do you agree with Katz? What evidence have you seen of dysfunctional pet ownership? And next, what is the veterinary profession's responsibility in helping clients view their pets properly? Click here to share your comments. I look forward to the insights you bring to the conversation.