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My thoughts on “Pill-Popping Pets”…

07/13/2008

Today in the New York Times Magazine, there was a piece by James Vlahos about the use of drugs to address behavioral issues in our pets. I’ve been mulling over some of the concepts brought up in the article, and a number of thoughts come to mind.

I’d first like to mention that Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who is frequently quoted in the article, is a wonderful man who cares deeply about animals. He was one of my teachers at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and I have the utmost respect for him. I know how much he cares about the well being of all animals; his motives are entirely pure and for this reason among others his work should be taken quite seriously.

Concerns were expressed, in the article and by many who read it, regarding the use of drugs as a substitute for addressing the root cause of behavioral issues. There is no doubt that it is essential, if possible, to ascertain and alleviate the underlying trigger for a pet’s unwanted behavior. This, unfortunately, can be easier said than done in today’s society. Of course dogs are lonely and bored when we are all so busy busy busy, and of course this leads to emotional and behavioral consequences—just as it would in any intelligent, social being left alone with nothing to do for hours at a time. Dogs live to have a job, and dogs with no job to perform are often unhappy—that’s no surprise. Just as of course cats (exceptionally skilled and agile predators) with nothing else to pounce on may end up pouncing on their human guardians! Dogs yearn to work; cats yearn to hunt—when one's strongest and most instinctive yearnings are denied, naturally trouble often ensues. 

Above all, though, I can’t help feeling how lucky our pets are, and I as a veterinarian am, to live in a society where all this matters so much to us. Yes, it’s distressing that there are dogs who are bored, lonely, terrified of fireworks, or fearful of strangers. It’s unfortunate that keeping cats safe means keeping them inside—not as exciting, to be sure, as a life of hunting and surviving in the great outdoors—but a more comfortable, secure, and longer life nonetheless. But none of this is nearly as heartbreaking as the plight of animals all over the world who are hungry, diseased, without shelter, or abused. In this country and even more so elsewhere, millions of dogs and cats are homeless, living short lives of danger and deprivation. Therefore, I feel blessed, and I know our pets are blessed, to live in a time and place where we’re arguing over the best way to keep animals happy and healthy, and we’re discussing it in the pages of the New York Times Magazine.

The pet food recall brought this home for me. Although the months of the recall in the spring of 2007 were among the most sad and stressful of my career, watching beloved animals suffer and die because of greedy, unethical practices perpetrated half a world away, the silver lining was the gratitude I felt to live in a country where everyone cared. The recall and its consequences were in the forefront of the media, drawing national attention and widespread outrage. As a veterinarian horrified by what was occurring, it was at least comforting to be surrounded by a nation equally appalled. 

I dream of a world in which all dogs and cats are in safe and loving homes, and in the perfectly ideal world, none of them will be bored, frightened, or lonely either—but in the meantime as we attempt to understand the emotions and behaviors of our animal companions, let’s at least be glad that so many of them have people who care.

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