Where are we headed? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

Where are we headed?

Has the advent of a new year worked wonders? Somehow, I’m a tad sceptical.

A brief, breakfast trawl through the newspaper this morning yielded a harvest of despair and dismay ranging from ever more atrocities in the Middle East to the midnight shenanigans of an England football player. Bob Geldof once complained that the country was “compassioned out”; I wonder if 2009 has found me to be “cynicalled out” – if such a term exists.

Two headlines leaped out at me: one described a five-yearold’s guide to drinking alcohol; the other had one of the partners in a Middle Eastern beach sex scandal blaming the media.

Personally, I’ve always viewed the proximity of sand as an unwanted abrasive but have always taken the responsibility for my own triumphs and failures in the horizontal department and find it hard to see how the media were actually involved in this particular beachfront tryst. It’s not as if they were there joining in or, possibly, in this upside down world, perhaps they were.

To people who’ve always prided themselves on being “normal” – whatever that might mean – the world is clearly operating without a moral compass and it will be interesting to see if and how, in times of economic difficulty, we will be able to marry Mrs Thatcher’s “look after your own” philosophy with the socialist’s call for “empathetic care” by the many for the few who need it most.

Our world depends on us living in harmony yet it would be difficult to find another period in recent history when there has been so much conflict around the world and so much violence in our own small country.

In 1969 (a lifetime ago to many people) some Americans I met commented on their love of Britain because of the lack of violence yet, today, five people a week die from stabbing in the UK. What’s happened to us over the last 40 years?

The decision to introduce armed patrols on some inner-city housing estates in Nottingham has caused some consternation with people wondering if this is a pivotal moment in Britain’s drift towards gun crime. Successive governments promise to crack down on violent crime but, other than the expert manipulation of statistics, has anything happened to improve the situation? One doubts it.

When Chris Laurence, veterinary director of Dogs Trust, describes the thought process behind young men owning staffies because it’s illegal to carry a knife, we see how the wide-angle view of our dysfunctional society begins to impinge on even the comparatively sheltered world of veterinary medicine.

This problem may not have hit the leafy avenues of Berkshire or Surrey but, until recently, the worthy folk of middle England consid-ered Nottingham to be a town just like any other.

Dogs Trust has a mine of information about re-homing, and has sound data showing that the main causes of people putting their dogs up for rehoming are financial – an inability to meet the on-going costs of pet ownership, including veterinary bills – and the failure of the owners to train the dogs to be socialised and obedient.

Why should we be surprised? None of us is likely to escape without feeling, at best, a frisson of financial chill from the current economic situation and, if the forecast is right, for a minimum of two million people, unemployment may mean that even meeting the cost of the dog’s food may be a bill too far.

Additionally, if we have a recognised problem with alcohol abuse in primary schoolchildren, and the worst record in Europe for teenage pregnancy, truancy and underage smoking, why should we be surprised when aspirant pet owners fail to control their dog’s behaviour and feel that it is perfectly acceptable for someone else to decide whether to retrain or euthanase the dog?

Saddening

The loss of a moral compass in society is both saddening and fraught with concern with widespread ramifications for the world in which we all live. The points of impact on the veterinary profession are, however, comparatively few and many of us may sail through without seeing too many awful situations. Unless, that is, society adapts to change in a more long-lasting way.

Every family which has to release a dog or cat for re-homing should, one would expect, think long and hard about any future decision to take on another pet in years to come. We have seen a lot of data that show the link between the individual’s pet ownership and a familial history of owning a pet.

Children growing up without the experience of companion animals are less likely to choose pet ownership themselves and we live in an increasingly American-style society where one is defined by what one spends. This will mean that robust decisions will have to be taken by these individuals to forego other expenditure if pet ownership is to be financially competitive with other sources of regular spending such as clothes, travel, socialising, etc.

If so, it will take a strong individual to value sustained pet ownership accordingly and we could anticipate a wider cycle of pet ownership leading to re-homing unless the individual’s understanding of personal responsibility exceeds that of society as a whole.

This sounds gloomy but I anticipate that the risks of people disengaging from pet ownership, over time, will be heightened by the two factors that Chris Laurence cites for the recent increase in animals subject to re-homing.

It is difficult to imagine that the next few years will see anything different other than an acceleration in the detrimental effects of these two factors. The practising arm of the profession can, however, make a difference if it chooses to set aside the need to increase profit in favour of finding ways to work with the client base to ensure that people who have difficulties either in affording to retain their pets or in training and socialising their pets receive the active support of the local practice.

Not only will this be a step towards developing a greater sense of community but the additional loyalty that it should engender will pay far greater gains in the longer term.

Business gurus will tell us that those businesses that continue to market themselves during the recession will emerge the stronger for that investment in the longer term. Practitioners will find it difficult in months to come and many are already seeing some effects of the downturn, but investment in the client base is a valid form of marketing and any costs incurred can be offset as marketing expenditure, leading to the development of a stronger, more competitive position in the market when things recover.

What tragedy it would be if the profession were to weather this particular storm only to find that an increasing percentage of its patients had not done so.

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