Too many pets kept alive when it's not the kindest option, say vets

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Too many pets kept alive when it’s not the kindest option, say vets
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Hidn20 Imagery/Getty Images

From open-heart surgery on a snake to putting your dog through chemotherapy, there have never been so many options to treat unwell pets. But vets are warning that too many owners are spending huge amounts of money on keeping their pets alive, even when it’s not always the most humane option.

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Channel 4’s Supervet and news stories such as Goldie the pufferfish’s tooth surgery are making pet-owners aware of the increasingly advanced and complex surgical and medical procedures that pets can undergo.

While veterinary science has made impressive advances in recent years, allowing many pets to be healthier for longer, vets warn that extending an animal’s life at all costs is not always the best option for them, and can result in bills worth thousands of pounds for their owners.

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Danny Chambers, a vet in Hampshire who runs a phone-in on BBC Radio Devon, said: “There are some situations where for the welfare of the animal, euthanasia would be appropriate to end the suffering. If you’re going to put them through quite complex surgery which has many months’ recovery time with complications, there is an ethical discussion to be had around that.”

Chambers cited the example of a person undergoing chemotherapy. Although it is a long and painful process, humans are able to rationalise suffering as a means to get better, or to enable them to spend time with family or to do things they’ve dreamed of. “Animals don’t have a desire to live a long life, they don’t want to make it to Christmas or someone’s birthday or to be 10 years older. They just want to be happy day-by-day.”

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He said most vets were able to give a list of three to five options for treatment plans, and that owners shouldn’t feel as if they have to choose the most expensive one if they can’t afford it, especially since that won’t always be best for the animal’s welfare.

“I hope people don’t feel guilty for not being wealthy enough to try these advanced procedures when the reality is that dogs are quite happy when given the best treatment you can afford.”

Andrew Knight, a veterinary professor at the University of Winchester, said part of the reason for higher expectations from owners was that they “are increasingly viewing their animals as important members of their households and families”.

He added that, as people are treated for free on the NHS, they often don’t understand the costs of some of the most advanced medical and surgical procedures, especially without pet insurance. “These can be unexpectedly expensive, even though they constitute very good value, compared to the costs of medical care for people.”

Sean McCormack, a vet in Surrey who writes a newspaper advice column, said that where previously people would consider complex treatments only for pets such as dogs and cats, he was seeing an increase in demand from people who had developed “a close emotional bond” with more unusual pets such as turtles, rabbits and snakes.

He has removed tumours from fish, done open-heart surgery on a snake, spayed a gecko, removed a bladder stone from an iguana and pinned, plated and fixed broken wings on birds.

Readers who replied to a Guardian callout shared their stories of complex surgeries for their pets, and the thousands of pounds they had spent, with many considering it worth it to keep their beloved animals alive.

Lisa Kucyk, from Swansea, estimated veterinary bills for her dog Nambo at up to £20,000. He had four operations on problems with his legs, including damage to his cruciate ligament, patella and cartilage, before he was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, the canine equivalent of motor neurone disease. He now has weekly physiotherapy, acupuncture and laser therapy.

Kucyk said she had bought the highest insurance coverage available for Nambo at the time, but still had to dip into savings to cover his final two operations, at £3,000 each.

Nambo is now paralysed, and Kucyk is able to keep him alive while she works from home, but she knows her physio will tell her when his quality of life has deteriorated to the point he needs to be euthanised.

Kucyk said the bills and care were worth it: “He’s a member of our family, and to be honest I prefer my dog over most people. He’s everything to me.”

Justine Shotton, the president of the British Veterinary Association, said that owners should be assured that vets always conduct a quality of life assessment and will advise on health and welfare impact and the costs involved.

She said: “In some cases, they may recommend that euthanasia is in the best interests of an animal if their quality of life is low, or if a treatment option may cause them a lot of pain and suffering or carry low chances of success.

“These are very difficult conversations, which take an emotional toll on all involved.”

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