Monday, August 29, 2016

Does our willingness to pay higher vet fees for dogs mean we love other species less?

Are we more devoted to dogs than we are to other companion animal species? What does our willingness to spend on them reveal about our bond?
Do we value some companion animals more than others, based on their species? According to an article published in yesterday’s SydneyMorning Herald, absolutely.

The article by Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon is based on a survey of 2033 Australians by the website Finder provides comparative information on Pet Insurance.

It found that people would be willing to spend almost twice as much money treating a dog as a cat ($4128 versus $2137). Owners reported they would spend even less on horses ($1501), birds ($351), reptiles ($216), pocket pets like guinea pigs, mice, rats and rabbits ($191) and least of all on fish ($153).
Women, in general, were willing to pay more, while members of Gen X were prepaid to pay more for cats than members of the baby boomer Generation. And there seemed to be a geographic effect, with those living in Western Australia willing to pay more for their dogs while those living in New South Wales would pay more for cats.

But what does this tell us? Does our willingness to fork out more for dogs confirm that in fact we are more bonded to dogs? Not necessarily. In my experience, often the cost of treating a dog is much higher than treating a cat due to the size of the patient (the cost of antibiotics for a 30kg Staffordshire terrier, for example, are significant more than for a cat, with the average Aussie cat weighing around 4-5kg)(for comparison, a mouse weighs 20-40g). 

It also doesn’t tell us much about the nature of the different costs – different species suffer from different conditions. Surgical conditions are generally more costly to treat than non-surgical conditions.

I was genuinely surprised that people were prepared to spend so much less on horses than dogs or cats. From a veterinary perspective, horses require a unique skill set, usually involve travel as it’s a bit harder to bring the patient to the vet, and can suffer severe, life-threatening conditions like colic. It’s hard to tell whether the difference owners say they will spend reflects rural versus urban economies.

I suspect the small amounts owners spend on birds, reptiles, pocket pets and fish reflects a general lack of awareness about signs of illness in these species. Even today, when these animals do present to me they are in a critical condition – though it’s much easier for people to recognise a dog in a critical condition than a bearded dragon in a critical condition, unless you know what you’re looking for. 

It’s a shame because “unusual pet vets” have usually done significant postgraduate study, and the cost (to the veterinarian) of performing procedures or prescribing medicines to these animals is the same as it is to dogs, cats and horses. But if they’re presented in a moribund state, there may be little point (and in fact it may be inhumane) to pursue diagnostics and treatment. Again, it’s hard to know if that was considered by respondents. Were some people considering the lifespan of an animal? Rats and mice live for a matter of years, so owners rarely elect to pursue treatments like surgery in these species (though I have removed tumours from rats and mice).

Can you tell a healthy from a critical bearded dragon?
We need to be careful what conclusions we draw from these figures. Finder is a financial comparison website and is promoting pet insurance, which is not a bad thing. However, insurance is only available in Australia for dogs and cats and some horses. I’m not aware of any plans that cover fish, reptiles or birds, despite the fact that some owners pay much more to purchase some of these animals than they would pay for a dog, cat or horse. I couldn't find out how respondents to the survey were recruited.

Ultimately, I don’t believe that we can conclude from this data that we love cats half as much as we love dogs. Cat owners are among the most devoted veterinary clients, the human-feline bond can be incredibly powerful. And I think there are so many variables – what condition is the owner paying for? What is the prognosis? How old is the patient? Are the owners responses reflecting what they would pay, what they have paid, or what they would like to pay?

I do suspect that we have a long way to go in increasing awareness about the welfare and health of smaller pets and the true costs of caring for them appropriately – both in terms of veterinary care as well as husbandry.

In other news…

Not quite how I expected them to come out, but quite edible.
Submissions are trickling in for the vet cook book. If you’re willing to share a recipe and some good advice you’ve received, please email vetcookbook [at] for a submission form. We got creative in the kitchen over the weekend and shared our results with some of the Pets in the Park volunteers.