Monday's new clients were special. An aged woman accompanied by her adult granddaughter with a middle-aged min-pin in tow; and one horrible mouth. It was perhaps the most impressively putrid mouth I believe I've ever witnessed. And the owner declined to treat.
The mandibular bone at the tip of the min-pin’s chin was so infected that it had softened, and the remaining "front" teeth — her lower jaw's two canines — were sagging forward in what was left of their sockets. Meanwhile, her lip drooped ineffectually. This dog could no longer close her mouth, which was why the old woman had deigned to allow her granddaughter to drag her dog to a vet.
The woman was obviously NOT happy to be there. In her late eighties or early nineties and hard of hearing, she loudly told me as much. Before I could even introduce myself or ask the reason for the visit, she barreled forth with her complaints: 'Her mouth doesn't smell like they say it does. She has a tick on her lip I can't get off. She's perfectly fine, she's just getting older. '
Sure she is ...
That tick? Not a tick. Just the now-more-pronounced pigmentation of her flapping lower lip. Or maybe she was referring to the hair matted around one of the two displaced canines — the ones keeping the dog’s mouth from closing. Not that you can close a mouth whose jawbone has been effectively melted by the relentless onslaught of bacteria. Then there's the rest of the mouth to consider ...
Worst. Mouth. Ever.
I mean, if your dog now requires major reconstructive surgery because her periodontal disease is so advanced, then perhaps there's a problem with your perception of her disease.
Were this a human child, protective services would have long since charged the parent with neglect. Yet it's perfectly legal in today's world to flagrantly allow your dog to suffer from diseases that are easily prevented via basic measures: simple brushing for the periodontally-challenged; portion control for the obese; stabilization for fractures; euthanasia or analgesia for the painfully, terminally ill.
You cannot fail to offer food, water, or shelter for your pets. You cannot neglect them in this regard. You cannot actively hurt them in any way. Yet certain kinds of passive maltreatment are the de facto state of the law.
Yes, you can let them languish in pain in any of the above scenarios — that is, unless someone goes out of their way to prove animal cruelty. Because there's no hard and fast legal requirement that you treat your dog's bite wounds or put her down after she's been dismembered in a car wreck. Presumably because veterinary care can be inaccessibly expensive, or because we as a society relish our property rights, medical neglect is very rarely prosecuted. Indeed, I can recall no such case in the U.S.
Elsewhere, however ...
A couple of years back, a U.K. family had its shockingly obese Lab confiscated on the grounds that it was effectively being abused with food. Meanwhile, a polarized public looked on with either righteous support or wary indignation. How can anyone do that to their dog? How can anyone say they can't? Where do we draw the line?
Lest you think this an isolated example of British eccentricity, here's a more recent example, courtesy of our neighbors to the north:
Keeping his elderly dog at home to die in pain instead of getting him euthanized has landed a Calgary man $690 in fines.
Michael Russell, 45, pleaded guilty Monday to a charge of allowing an animal to suffer pain or distress under the Animal Protection Act.
His veterinarian alerted the authorities to the exceedingly painful dog's unmet need to have his suffering alleviated. In so doing, he was exercising his right under the Veterinarian's Oath to advocate for the animal's freedom from suffering.
Though this Canadian veterinarian has been much criticized for throwing his client under a bus, somehow I can't find it in myself to disagree with his actions. Of course I see the obvious ramifications of a world in which pet owners might forgo vet care altogether should vets stick to their guns on welfare, but still.
Am I to sit idly by while obviously unwell owners decline to make treatment decisions based exclusively on their inarguably erroneous belief that their animal isn't suffering? Ultimately, the owner of this dog and her granddaughter walked out the door with their dog, a bottle of antibiotics in hand, but I strongly suspect I will never see any of them ever again.
Dr. Patty Khuly