10 Reasons Your Pets Get Better Healthcare Than You

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Healthcare is always a hot button issue. Some people have it, some can’t afford it, but everyone needs it. So it becomes a little crazy to think that, astonishingly, your beloved, furry, little pets might be getting better medical treatment than you. How does that happen, exactly? Well, since you asked…

10. Vets Make Fewer Referrals

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How many doctors does it take to heal a broken bone? If the patient is human, then your General Practitioner will refer you to a different specialist depending on which bone is broken, who (after sending you to a radiologist for x-rays) will turn around and send you to a physical therapist. That is, assuming nothing out of the ordinary is involved. Specialists and GPs alike often refer to the huge variety of education they require to practice medicine, and how impressive and expensive that is.

It is impressive, except that veterinarians have to study the same magnitude of subjects, multiplied by all the many various species of animals Americans like to keep as pets. Simply studying all the various mammals would be challenging enough, but vets routinely provide care to reptiles, amphibians, birds, and even exotic zoo animals replete with claws, jaws, and venoms that make an accidental needle stick at the free clinic seem downright playful by comparison. A given veterinarian will see any number of different species every day, each requiring everything from the standard array of vaccinations to complicated surgery, as well as screening and treating diseases unique to a specific subpopulation of a particular animal—all within the same clinic.

In fact, even if a particular pet or ailment requires a specialist—there are veterinary radiologists, pathologists, and even oncologists (sadly, animals get Cancer too), as well as behavior specialists, psychologists, and nutritionists—they will often be housed in a larger specialty clinic together, so as far as the pet-owner is concerned, they get to talk to the same doctor throughout the whole ordeal. Your dog’s doctor is usually your dog’s dentist, so you seldom get charged for a consultation only to discover that you’ll have to schedule another appointment with a separate vet somewhere else.

Given the crazy variety they must be prepared to handle, it would be understandable if vets came to work with outsized egos, but…

9. Nurses Are Treated as Equals

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Do you know the difference between a physician and a nurse? The difference can actually depend on what state you live in, since the various states have different regulations stipulating what nurses can and can’t do. That, and the fact that every nursing specialty and level of education, from an entry-level RN to a Nurse Practitioner who has a freaking doctorate (but never call one “doctor” in earshot of a physician), is expected to carry the same generic “Nurse” title.

Meanwhile, in animal care, there are no nurses per se; Veterinary Technicians (Vet Techs) are perhaps the closest equivalent, but since they provide everything from patient-facing services (check-in, measuring vitals, STUFF) to assisting doctors during surgery, they don’t have to put up with near as much “just a nurse” bullshit. So while physicians grow increasingly whiny in the face of NPs and their ilk providing a growing array of primary care services (in the face of a physician shortage, no less), Vet Techs are treated as indispensable, working alongside Veterinarians in clinics with a greater focus patient care than on their relative status and acclaim.

Come to think of it, self-centeredness is the opposite problem most vets have…

8. If Anything, They Care Too Much

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Ever heard of compassion fatigue? That is what happens when you are so emotionally engaged, empathetic, and, well, compassionate toward others (especially those in distress, i.e. patients), that you develop mental and emotional problems. It is also part of the reason why veterinarians have among the highest occupational suicide rate of all professionals: roughly one out of every six veterinarians has contemplated or attempted suicide.

When someone decides to become a vet, it is almost always because they are passionate about animals; not every doctor likes people, but you can bet that every vet has at least one pet. So while veterinary schools are increasingly incorporating training to fight compassion fatigue, medical schools are beginning to address the pervasiveness of the so-called “God Complex” among physicians, reminding them to be more relatable and accessible to their patients.

Certainly, physicians care about their patients—but while physicians enjoy a deferential attitude from their patients, vets seldom get such appreciation from theirs. To continue practicing, vets simply cannot let ego get in the way; among physicians, arrogance is hazard that patients simply have to learn to deal with.

Of course, even the most compassionate physician may not be totally committed to patient health…

7. Every Patient Matters

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The sad truth is that, at the hospital, you will receive different care depending on whether you are black or not. America’s long, complicated history of race and inequality means that, unintentional or not, clinicians’ prejudices show up in their care they deliver. When it comes to looking after pets, on the other hand, it doesn’t matter if the vet self-identifies as a Cat Person or a Dog Person; there are just too many varieties of “pet” for vets to get hung up on petty biases.

If a person brings a sick or injured pet in, the stakes couldn’t be higher for vets, and they will perform honest-to-God surgery on a goldfish if that is what it takes. But while Cedric the Goldfish can count on fish-whisperers to come to his rescue in the fight against the Big C, minority patients can’t even count on their doctors to administer as much pain medication as white patients get—even when the patients are children.

You might think that the doctor and patient being the same species would give human clinicians a leg up on their veterinary counterparts, but it turns out, the reverse is true…

6. Empathy Rules the Day

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Humans make terrible patients. In the hospital world, patients scam for drugs, misrepresent symptoms, forget key elements of their medical history (like what prescriptions they take or whether they are allergic to latex) and generally present a major obstacle to actual healthcare delivery.

Veterinarians, on the other hand, never have to navigate the nuances of doctor-patient communication, mainly because the average pet can’t communicate using words. So instead of cutting through the bullshit that human patients are constantly shoveling through the hallways of hospitals everywhere they seek care, vets have to learn to read body language, distinguish vocalizations ranging from barks to squawks to whimpers to discern how the pet-patient is feeling, and find ways to mitigate fear and discomfort without being able to employ cold logic or statistics on procedural success rates.

Ultimately, it means that for vets, bedside manner isn’t just what separates competent doctors from great ones; it is a key, complex skill set they all need to master to even have a chance of treating their patients.

5. Insurance is Optional, Not the Root of the Whole System

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Yes, pet insurance is a thing. It is especially popular among breeders, who either own purebred dogs and cats for “showing” and specialized training, or who hold genetic lottery tickets like race horses whom they can pimp-out for a lucrative “cover” charge. But unlike in human medicine, where insurance is a federally-endorsed disaster whereby consumers are insulated from the real costs of care, enabling prices skyrocket without oversight or transparency, and ensuring America outspends all other developed nations on healthcare without any apparent correlation in quality or health outcomes—pet insurance works pretty much how it is supposed to.

That is, pet insurance is only necessary for animals with chronic conditions or who otherwise require extensive veterinary care, but isn’t needed for the average pet. That is probably why only 1-3% of pets have any insurance policy, while the Affordable Care Act aspires to get every American citizen insured, lest they go broke trying to pay out-of-pocket for a single visit to the hospital.

Vets are expensive to see, just like doctors—it is just that the system surrounding animal care hasn’t been polluted by bureaucratic interference, partisan grandstanding, and corporate money-grubbing to quite the same extent that human healthcare has.

4. Less Litigation, More Trust

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Odd as it may sound, people tend to really trust their veterinarians. Animal docs tend to pay much less for malpractice insurance, because, well, they don’t get sued as often as medical doctors. When they say they’ve done everything possible to save Fido but he dies anyway, people are generally a lot more willing to accept that, unlike when they learn that their doctor or hospital provided anything less than a miracle cure for their self-destructive eating and exercise habits or chronic oldness.

American healthcare is unaffordable in part because clinicians need malpractice insurance to even see patients, driving up the cost of their service; they also wrack up the volume of services—which increases costs—because defensive medicine entails ordering magnitudes of tests and repeat visits, looking at every conceivable medical possibility before actually diagnosing or treating, just to make sure patients have no basis for saying they didn’t receive sufficient care. So while veterinarians pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand—depending on what sort of animals they see more of—medical doctors treating homo sapiens pay insurance premiums costing tens of thousands of dollars on the low end.

Bottom line: as a profession, veterinary doctors are more trusted than medical doctors. That comes in handy when it comes to things like disease control, because…

3. Everyone Gets Vaccinated

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Lots of animal boarders—that’s doggy daycare—will straight-up refuse to let an animal onto the premises if it doesn’t have its shots. Vaccinations are standard order in the animal care universe, because nobody wants to see nasty viruses mutating and jumping from pets to people and wreaking havoc on the world any more than they want to relive the end of Old Yeller.

There is no nonsense about contradicting medical science with the brilliant preface, “As a mother, I’m concerned about—”. You have a pet? You are getting it vaccinated. Unless—and this is really the only plausible exception—you adopted, in which case, you can bet the agency helping you adopt will make it all too clear that your new family member was already vaccinated, saving you the trouble.

And speaking of distractions missing from animal care that make it just ever so practical compared to human care…

2. Birth Control is Non-Controversial

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Birth-control is one of the most common services people get from their vets. Pet owners and vets alike recognize that everyone and everything wants to reproduce—but, in light of limited resources and all, probably shouldn’t do it. In the interest of the health and welfare of the animal—along with the pressing, obvious need to control the stray population—birth control services are standard order, for both male and female pets. It isn’t awkward, it isn’t debated, and it isn’t expensive.

Yet while The Price is Right’s Bob Barker was able to turn “Get your pets spayed or neutered” into his trademark sign-off, you (unfortunately?) never see Wheel of Fortune ending with Pat Sajack reminding viewers to take the pill or get a vasectomy, even though human populations are just as critical—if not more so—than pets’. Try walking into a hospital and asking for some basic reproductive services, and see how far you get before someone reminds you what Jesus wants from your genitals.

The inarguable reality of pet populations is that there simply aren’t enough safe, clean homes to take proper care of all the domestic animals that would exist without some form of birth control—and quality of life is as important as protecting life itself, because while death is unavoidable, suffering doesn’t have to be.

But this attitude, yet again, sets vets apart from their medical counterparts, because…

1. They Acknowledge that Death is Natural

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Nothing creates drama in a medical TV show like someone pounding on the chest of an unconscious patient, cursing the heavens and screaming things like, “Don’t you die on me!” Although this may be cartoonish misrepresentation of real medicine, it is sadly reflective of the general attitude held by most of the fine folks treating humans. Namely, Death is the Great Enemy, and any and all action must be taken to fight back against the Dark Infinity, no matter the cost (financial, emotional, physical, ethical, etc.).

In human hospitals, death is never an option: it is literally illegal in almost every state for doctors to even consult, much less intervene with an eye to ending a patient’s life, even at the patient’s request.

But remember how veterinarians struggle to cope with compassion fatigue? That is because they are actively concerned with the holistic wellbeing of their animal patients, and frequently have to make a professional judgement as to whether a patient’s quality of life has reached a point where death is a more compassionate, humane option than any more invasive interventions to keep them alive. What is worse, they often have to explain this reality to distraught pet owners who aren’t ready to see goodbye, even if it means an end to their pet’s suffering. And, contrary to any concerns about desensitization, euthanizing animals is never easy.


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2 Comments

  1. Charles Campbell on

    To make a broad statement that white patients get more and/or better pain medications is insane.

  2. That’s fair, Charles. Broad, unfounded statements are troublesome indeed.

    Fortunately, a bevy of NIH study papers have been published explaining the trend in greater detail. Consider running a search for “race patients pain medication nih” for further information.