(The view from the other side)
The concept of the human-animal bond (HAB) as a major factor in veterinary medicine has evolved over a period of time. While there has always been an informal recognition of the importance of that bond (Rome was reportedly founded by twins raised by wolves), we certainly have refined and re-examined this idea over recent years. We now relate the bond to our ability to practice medicine, and recognize it as a major factor in how we deal with both patients and clients.
It is also important to recognize that there are significant cultural differences in the nature of the HAB. Some cultures do not recognize animals as sentient beings, yet some consider them on the same level as family members (plus or minus the fur).
I had the opportunity to spend several weeks last summer working in Mexico City at the veterinary school at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico), the largest branch of the federal university system in Mexico. The school offers the usual range of didactic and laboratory experiences, but does run on a different “school year” from ours. As a result, there was ample opportunity to interview both students and recent graduates (many of whom return to teach or do post-graduate research).
The professionals there were interested in the subject of the human-animal bond, but most of the people interviewed expressed surprise that it might be considered a subject for research. The emotional aspects of patient care are mentioned in the classroom, but only briefly, toward the end of the veterinary school program. The discussion is influenced by the way that animals are viewed, and particularly in the definition of “companion animal”.
By far, dogs comprise the largest number of feral animals; it is estimated that there are several million stray dogs in Mexico City. While people generally are fond of dogs, most people let their dogs wander freely during the day (and even at night). The animals are not usually vaccinated, and rarely spayed/neutered. The people consider the animal to be owned, but do not consider them to be family members. They believe the animals to be endowed with both intelligence and personality, but feel that the animals are happier when roaming outside, and that dogs do not have the same requirements for affection and housing that people have. There is felt to be a clear superiority of human to animal, and most do not feel that medical care is or should be the same for animals as it is for people.
This has a direct impact on veterinary care. The interns in the University hospital indicate that people are most often not willing to engage in surgery or long-term care unless a complete cure is to be expected. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are very rare. While many of these issues are economic, even clients who possess the means for treatment do not often pursue the full range of services available. All of the professionals interviewed indicated that they felt this state of affairs was directly related to the view of the human toward the animal as a possession.
Having said this, it is not that people are insensitive to animals. And many families are starting to view their pets differently. There is an increase in the number of dogs who are kept in a fenced-in or circumscribed area, and more people are bringing their animals in for medical care. There is and has always been a group who treats their animals much as we do.
The issue of cats is more complicated. There are certainly many feral cats in the city, but far fewer than dogs. Cats appear to be more likely to kept indoors if they are perceived as pets. One could speculate that this increased “contact time” is associated with increased HAB. It is difficult to quantify, however, as cats are much less likely than dogs to be brought to a veterinarian.
One thing in reference to how dogs are viewed is particularly striking. There is a statue along one of the main streets of the city dedicated to feral dogs. It is a hound holding one of his rear legs up in the air, as if hit by a car. It is a particularly poignant tribute, and makes it clear that there is at least a recognition that life on the street is not desirable. Many veterinarians there are now working to promote the development of public awareness of these issues. The complications of both economic resources and traditional manners of thought—that is, culture—will color these efforts.
One of the advantages of the AVFP’s efforts to promote study and teaching of the HAB is the opportunity it affords us to do research. Quantifying the positive effects of our support of the HAB on humans and animals can help our colleagues here and abroad improve the quality of life of both clients and patients.
We are in no position to judge anyone’s culture in reference to ours, nor should we want to. We can, however, by studying, researching, and discussing these issues, make our conversations among ourselves and others more thoughtful.
I am very grateful to my friends and colleagues at UNAM for their generosity of time and spirit in discussing these issues. Of course, my AVFP family made this report possible, and inspired its theme. Thanks to all!