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April 2005
Do No Harm
By Holly Cheever, DVM

 

Drawing by Mark Wells
Drawing by Mark Wells

Like most veterinarians, I chose to attend veterinary school because of my deep love for animals. In addition, I am preceded by five generations of surgeons in my family and have been given a sense that life should be spent caring for and serving others. Veterinary medicine gave me the perfect profession to combine my interests, aptitudes, and philosophies. However, I was troubled by my courses in surgery because, at that time, there were no alternatives for students with ethical concerns, nor would Cornell’s School of Veterinary Medicine allow us to rescue the animals used in surgical training—their euthanasia at the end of the surgical exercise was inevitable. I found this deeply disturbing, conflicting with the most basic tenet of all medical practice: primum non nocere—first, do no harm.

Although I could not control the fates of the animals in my veterinary curriculum, I did have some control over the fortune of those animals coming to me for care once I was in practice. I eschewed unnecessary procedures—cat declawing, canine ear crops and tail docks, dehorning cattle without anesthesia—that were cruel and not in the best interests of the patient. This approach caused some degree of tension with my first employer, but he assumed I would “outgrow” these philosophical oddities as I developed my practical skills. My dairy clients were initially skeptical of the added cost of giving calves local anesthetic nerve blocks before I dehorned them, but they quickly came to appreciate the lowered stress levels in their calves and the more professional manner in which the dehorning process was performed.

Upon moving to the Albany area, I joined a small animal hospital that handled all species of companion animals and wildlife. There I had the good fortune to find an employer who was sympathetic to my practice standards and placed no limitations on what I felt to be essential tenets of veterinary care. I was given free rein to advise human guardians on care options that would best serve their companion animals’ interests. As I continued to mature in my profession, my practice philosophy became more focused and reaffirmed.

In addition to doing a thorough physical examination and vaccination with a puppy’s or kitten’s first visit, I discuss with the guardian what constitutes the best care for their new companion. I am very firm about spaying and neutering, pointing out the health and behavioral benefits for dogs and cats, and (tactfully) try to dissuade them from their proud-parent desire for future babies. If they’re enamored of a breed, I suggest that they look into breed rescue or into local fostering agencies for a similar type of dog or cat, rather than add to the overpopulation problem. If their pup comes from a pet store, I find a tactful time and manner to break the news about the puppy mills they are supporting, and offer to help them find a dog in the future that will avoid contributing to this cruelty. Unfortunately, no matter how gentle I try to be in these conversations, many guardians are angered by my “sermonizing”—understandably, perhaps, since they suddenly feel a twinge of guilt conflicting with the joy and pride they felt one minute earlier. Some clients choose to see only my associates from then on, while others are able to understand that my motivation was laudable, even if the message burst their happy bubble, and they tease me about it as our relationship develops over time.

Ear cropping and tail docking are not an option in our practice. If a pup comes to me with ears already mutilated, I tell the guardians—as gently as I can—that this procedure is outlawed in the United Kingdom and the European Union on the grounds that it is unspeakably cruel and interferes with the dog’s intra-species communication skills. If their dog is reluctant to have his/her ears handled with maturity, the guardians know it’s due to the ear cropping, and they usually tell me that they’ll never do it again. Amen.

With cats, I recommend that they be kept inside and mention the American Bird Conservancy’s campaign (“Cats Indoors”) and provide literature with ways to make your indoor cat happy and well-entertained. If there is an interest in declawing, I ask them to try training, provide optimal scratching posts, or use “sticky paws” scratch control strips for furniture to keep their home unscathed. If they remain unconvinced, I discuss what the procedure entails, namely the amputation of ten kitty toes, and remind them about the phenomenon of phantom pain which is a common consequence of human limb amputation. I mention an alternate approach, digital tendonectomy—the cats get to keep their claws but cannot set them in the destructive scratching/marking mode—which is much less painful and is not disfiguring. To me, declawing is simply punishing a cat for being a cat, and (like canine cosmetic surgery) is outlawed in the UK and EU. If the client simply will not consider leaving those kitty toes intact, I refer them to my two associates who will perform these procedures. I never have and never will, but also recognize that my refusal to declaw a cat could result in that cat losing their home. I personally do not feel that I have done the cat a favor if my philosophical obstinacy has resulted in that cat’s being ejected from an otherwise loving family.

Overall, having “Dr. Holly” care for a companion animal opens the door to a plethora of advice, both requested and not. Although my opinionated slant on veterinary medicine has cost me a few human clients over the years, it has earned me a far greater number who are delighted that their veterinarian rates their companion’s welfare so highly. Truth be told, I am willing to lose business rather than compromise the all-important well-being of their beloved companion. If they see my diligent letters to the local newspaper editor about an upcoming circus or some barbaric hunting regulation, they proudly tell friends that their veterinarian really fights for animal welfare and they are grateful to have me. After all, the word “doctor” means teacher in Latin, and I see my role as teaching the human part of the equation to be the best caregiver possible to their nonhuman friend.

In addition to her private practice, Dr. Holly Cheever presents programs to students on environmental and animal advocacy issues. She has won awards for animal protection from the New York State Troopers, the Humane Society of the United States, and was named Veterinarian of the Year by the New York State Humane Association in 1991.

 


 


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