Don't run from reading this book on the ethics of owning a pet

Don't run from reading this book on the ethics of owning a pet

You might not feel the same about animal ownership after reading Run Spot Run, but it’s better to be aware of the good as well as the bad for your veterinary patients.
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Oct 12, 2017

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“It’s not just about the veterinary care; it’s about the entire process.”

I have made this statement many times over many years to my colleagues about the many aspects of being a veterinarian. We are first and foremost responsible for medical care, but it doesn’t stop there. Counseling that we do (or should do) about nutrition, behavior, training and the entire ethics of being a good pet owner should always be a part of our job—but it wasn’t always a part of our veterinary curriculum.

My interest in the nonmedical side of veterinary medicine is how my path crossed with Jessica Pierce, PhD, five years ago after I read her book The Last Walk, the gut-wrenching story about end-of-life care and the decisions around euthanasia regarding her dog Ody. As a bioethicist she brought to her writings a degree of introspection I hadn’t read before or, honestly, hadn’t previously considered.

Whereas The Last Walk was emotionally hard to read, Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets was downright uncomfortable. I first read Run, Spot, Run a year ago when Pierce told me it had been published, and as I did, I found many of the topics to be a punch in the gut. One online bestiality forum has over a million members giving each other advice on the “how-to” of sex with animals, and other forums discuss the torture and sadism of animals. Time had not lessened that uncomfortable impact as I read the book again after being asked to write this review.

Pierce starts out with a general discussion of what makes an animal a pet (versus what makes an animal dinner) and the changes in the past several decades that have transformed people from being pet owners to pet parents. Spoiler alert: big industry is involved.

The author has tackled the job of discussing the undiscussable, including the breeding and wholesale marketing of pets and the sexual exploitation and intentional physical abuse of animals. She has also looked at both sides of controversial topics including popular yet punitive training methods, nutrition, when (or if) to spay and neuter, and the roles pets are expected to play in the family.

Many topics hit close to home, including those discussions we as veterinarians should be having with our clients when they bring their pets in to see us—such as the enrichment of a pet’s emotional, physical and cognitive life.

When I read this book a year ago, I found myself wanting to disagree with Pierce's ethical take on some of the above topics. It was hard to hear her discuss whether we should even own pets (she does—she has three currently) or whether we should even refer to them as “pets.”

I do not have the same feeling after my second reading. I realize now that it wasn’t that I didn’t agree—it was that I didn’t want to agree with her uncomfortable observations and conclusions. We all want to live in a perfect world, but we can’t do that until we consider the world’s imperfections and takes the steps necessary to challenge them. I feel better equipped to do so for having read Run, Spot, Run.

Michael Petty, DVM, CVPP, CVMA, CCRT, CAAPM, is a faculty member of the Canine Rehabilitation Institute, Wellington, Florida, and owner of Arbor Pointe Veterinary Hospital, Canton, Michigan.