Back in veterinary school, I was faced with the decision about what exactly I wanted to do after graduation. It seemed there were two paths I could choose from: one would lead towards becoming a general practitioner and one would lead towards becoming a specialist.
Unlike some of my peers who knew exactly what they wanted from the minute they entered the clinics, the decision wasn’t simple for me. Each option had proverbial pros and cons and benefits and drawbacks. I wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed.
Career indecision wasn’t really a new concept for me. Although I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as I can remember, the “kind” of vet I wanted to be evolved as I aged.
As a very young child, I wanted to be a vet who treated only puppies and kittens. I’m not sure exactly when I discovered this idealistic notion of what a vet did was not even close to being true, but once it did, I know my goals started to change a bit.
As a “horsey” kid growing up on Long Island, I spent my pre-teen years dreaming of being a racetrack veterinarian. After realizing the thoroughbred racing industry wasn’t nearly as akin to the glamorous world of the Black Stallion novels as I once thought, once again I found my romantic notions of veterinary medicine shifting.
I spent time contemplating a career as a zoo vet or conservationist, but as is true for so many things in life, things eventually came full circle, and by the time I was accepted to veterinary school, I decided I would be a general practitioner and spend my days treating companion animals.
This was, of course, before I knew what specialty veterinary medicine entailed. Once I started vet school, I was exposed to a caliber of medicine not unlike what is available for my own health. Specialty medicine appealed to my intellectual side and my creative side. After a few years I knew it was the path I wanted to take.
I struggled with what would be the ideal specialty for me to pursue. Truthfully, oncology was the furthest from my mind. One of my biggest concerns was the astronomical amount of finances directed towards saving the life of only one dog or cat, as compared to what could be spent towards helping so many animals in a shelter or rescue organization.
It’s not unusual for owners to spend $5,000 or even $10,000 when treating a pet with cancer. Some owners will spend $20,000 or more on pets treated with surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Of course I recognize this is not even close to an option for the vast majority of people, but for a small group of pet owners, there is literally no price to be put on their pet’s healthcare.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the disparity in the different “fields” of veterinary medicine. Some racehorses are worth millions of dollars as unproven yearlings and there are immense expenses related to their veterinary care. I routinely recommend treatments costing several thousands of dollars for a single animal, knowing I’m not likely to cure them of their cancer, but I’m typically able to extend their lifespan by months to years. Even “routine” veterinary care for dogs and cats can run into hundreds of dollars per visit to the vet. Yet there are so many pets in shelters who may never be afforded the chance for advanced treatment should it arise, or worse yet, are put to sleep for lack of space, or for a treatable, but expensive, medical condition.
As veterinarians, I think we each struggle with the reality that we simply cannot save every animal, and I still battle with the financial aspects of my chosen career more often than I would like. Maybe it’s more pronounced in a field such as oncology, but it’s not at all exclusive to my chosen specialty.
Is it wrong for an owner to spend the same amount of money on one pet that could be used to help so many more? Everyone will have his or her own convictions when answering this question. Until you are in the position of having to make that actual choice, I think it’s best not to respond at all as your answer could be very surprising under different circumstances.
Just as my career goals changed over time, so may a person's opinion on the “value” of a pet, especially if it were your own animal you were making that decision about.
Dr. Joanne Intile