I was listening to Talk of the Nation this afternoon, and a segment was included featuring a couple of panelists who had written on the topic of our relationships with our pets, and “how far we’ll go” financially to keep pets alive and healthy. Many of the callers expressed opinions echoing my own; basically, most would spend quite a bit on their pet’s health care, but would make the decision to euthanize if they felt that the pet’s suffering was being prolonged or increased by the interventions. The panelists, on the other hand, seemed to have an axe to grind with the choices that many pet owners make to spend large sums of money on veterinary care. Ada Calhoun, a writer whose article in Salon described a negative experience she had with a coercive vet when her cat required expensive surgery, seemed to focus on her belief that the current culture of pet ownership makes villains of people who cannot or choose not to spend thousands of dollars on their pets. Author Jon Katz was apparently more concerned about the implications of this phenomenon with respect to how Americans relate to one another and where, as a society, we choose to invest our energy and money.

Calhoun made some good points, even if I find distasteful the need people seem to have to constantly prove through hyperbole that OF COURSE we love our children, we would DIE for our children, and pets JUST AREN’T THE SAME, and even if her article evoked a hypothetical image of her cat (whom her pushy vet said he would simply treat and find another home for if she elected against the urinary tract surgery he recommended; instead she took the cat to another vet to be euthanized) being pushed down the street in a “cat stroller” by its new owners–which in my opinion unfairly lumps in a group of people that we as a society tend to find tolerable even if we wouldn’t make the same choices (people who spend a lot of money on pets’ medical care) with a group of people that we as a society tend to look down on and even see as behaving in a way that might be harmful to their pets (people who wheel their dogs around in strollers, have them eat at the table, etc.)

My own opinion is that in both cases, it is entirely up to those people how they spend their money, as long as they are keeping their pets healthy and happy, and furthermore people tend to have a knee-jerk response to, for example, “dog strollers,” when there can be very good reasons from past neglect or injuries to arthritis to carry certain dogs rather than making them walk long distances. In other words, you can’t tell by looking whether someone else’s choices are “reasonable” or not, even if it were any of your business. (Hmm… sounds familiar… kind of like comments I’ve made before about how you can’t tell by looking at someone whether they’re “healthy.” But more on that later.) But certainly the first category of people is more “accessible” to most readers, and I think it was a little sneaky of Calhoun to imply that only someone in the second category would have shelled out for the operation.

Although I question how universal her experience might be (based on my experience, I doubt, for example, that my vet would exert undue pressure on me to have expensive procedures done on my cat), I do agree with her that care at some facilities may be heading in a less-than-ideal direction as pet owners may be pressured by vets into paying for procedures that they can’t afford.

On the other hand, Katz’s arguments pissed me off almost from the moment he opened his mouth. He stated that we spend $49 billion on veterinary care in the U.S. per year, while 38 million children are uninsured–and said that the numbers of uninsured raise few eyebrows, in a way that suggested we are all apparently OK with stealing money directly from kids with cancer and using it to purchase pet apparel. He asserted that we treat pets as well as or even better than our children. He argued that overfeeding (which he conflated with “overcare”) of pets is the leading cause of death in dogs and generally insinuated that we are killing our pets by making them “part of the family.” He held up some kind of iconic Upstate New York farmer as an example of a more “reasonable” attitude toward pets–the kind of person who would never say his pets were “part of his family” or consider racking up exorbitant vet bills on their care. (I imagine he’d argue that he never said this idealized stoic, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth stereotype was “better” than the urban/suburbanites he criticized, but the admiration in his tone was along Christopher Kimball lines, so I wouldn’t buy that.) He said that we are using pets to fulfill emotional needs that should properly be filled by people, to the detriment of both pet and pet owner. And finally, he bolstered his argument by inventing a straw pet owner who would keep a pet alive to meet his or her needs despite the suffering of the pet–never mind that this caricature had already been knocked down by essentially every caller to the show.

In response to these arguments, I’d say that 1) as a society, I would like to believe that we can show compassion to both children and pets, and indeed that kindness to animals is a good sign for society as a whole–never mind that the individual dollars that pay for pet health care are not exactly being diverted from a pool of money that would otherwise go to insurance for children. In other words, there is no proof that resources are shifting from children to animals.

2) The argument that pets are treated better than children is infuriating and flimsy. It seems to me that instead, people who treat their children badly are assholes and probably tend also to treat their pets badly. Also, I remember a Charles Krauthammer editorial about an incident some years ago in which a man threw a woman’s dog into traffic to its death during a road-rage incident. Krauthammer huffed all indignantly about how there was so much outrage about this incident, but too little about child abuse and neglect–never mind that people like him are never exactly on the forefront of movements to fund programs that would work to prevent child abuse or improve living conditions for parents. At the time I remember thinking that as horrific as life still is for so many children, frankly, if someone threw a baby into traffic, we’d probably hear about it. (Though as awful as it is to consider, I do realize that if the baby weren’t American, we might not.)

In any case, incidents of animal abuse are still horribly common, and no, I’m not going to go to the Humane Society of the U.S. web site to get statistics, because whenever I look for information like that I end up sickened for days by the horrific accounts I run across. Suffice it to say, I believe that as a society we still have a long way to go with respect to compassion for animals and children. But the continued existence of child ill-treatment does not cancel out our obligation to behave compassionately toward our pets.

3) I will rant about the “pet obesity epidemic” below. And I doubt Katz has any evidence to back up the “overfeeding is the #1 cause of death in dogs” claim. Please feel free to correct me in comments if anyone does have such evidence.

4) I hate to tell you, J.K., but Upstate Farmer Guy doesn’t actually exist; he’s just an amalgamation your hobby-farming ass invented to emulate and feel inferior to.

But I was struck in addition by how closely Katz’s arguments mirrored those often used to convince us that our personal body weights constitute a dire societal problem called “The Obesity Epidemic,” the responsibility for which can be laid squarely on the shoulders of fat people. To wit:

Scapegoating. Katz seemed at first to suggest that anyone who would spend a lot on pet health care is a problematic symbol of misplaced priorities in American society. Later, as I mentioned, he sort of moved the goalposts to encompass people who “treat pets like children” (a very vague characterization that probably means different things to different people) and people who keep pets alive and suffering just so they won’t have to be without the pet’s companionship. This strikes me as so similar to how fat people are scapegoated–in order to get you “on board,” you’re told “oh, you’re not fat” or that as long as you’re fat and healthy, it’s OK–it’s those fat people who eat fast food all the time who are the problem. Either way, the goal is to get you to blame a wide range of social ills on someone who isn’t you. And I’m just saying, one can sell a lot of books by whipping up righteous indignation among one’s readers.

(In addition, this moving of the goalposts allows you to “win” an argument by refuting a statement that your opponent never made. In this argument, Katz heard “I’m willing to spend a lot on my pets, but I would have to make the hard choice to let them go if they were suffering” and effectively responded “Well, I think people shouldn’t keep pets alive and in pain just to meet their own emotional needs.” Doesn’t sound that different from, for example, me arguing that it’s misleading to include a picture of an extremely fat person in an article about the percentage of Americans who are “overweight,” and maybe if the photo was of someone who was truly in the BMI “overweight” category the average fatphobe could look at fat and health a little more rationally–and I know this example is problematic because I don’t think an extremely fat person’s weight makes them fair game for judgment either, but bear with me–and someone else responding “Maybe, but you can’t tell me it’s healthy to weigh 500 pounds!” In both cases the other person has “won” the argument by making a statement that “everyone knows” is true–whether it actually is or not–but which does not actually address the substance of the argument.)

“These people are just a symptom of overconsumption in our society.” This is a convenient way to scapegoat fat people for everything from abusing their children with excess food to having a disproportionate impact on global warming. Apparently “overindulgent” pet owners are also abusing their pets by overfeeding them and “overcaring” for them (whatever that means), and are “wasting resources” (that is, their own personal money) on pet health care. “Overconsumption” is shorthand for all kinds of nasty stuff–stuff which of course you’re not guilty of, but that person over there who displays certain outward cues (a fat body or a dog in a stroller, for example) obviously is.

On a similar note: “Those people are taking up all the resources.” Expensive health care is blamed on fat people, who are “obviously” driving up everyone else’s premiums. Similarly, the crisis of uninsured children is blamed indirectly on people spending “too much” on their pets. Either way, people are perceived not just to be consuming excessively, but to actually be “taking” something from others. In both cases, these arguments may help those not in the scapegoated group to feel good about themselves, but the assertion is factually questionable in the first instance and a false dichotomy in the second.

This was addressed only indirectly by the “overfeeding” thing–which, again, did not relate to the health-care topic of the show but I feel was tossed in there by Katz as an “everybody knows” statement to get people on board–but what about “Everyone knows obesity is bad?” We just assume these days that pets are getting fatter and that this is a bad thing. But I am by no means convinced that pets are really appreciably fatter than they used to be, nor (just as with humans) that putting them on weight loss diets, feeding them often filler-ific diet food, or putting them on anti-obesity drugs is not actively worse for their health. Not to mention, give me my healthy, happy, large, sleek indoor cat–who eats wholesome cat food and freeze-dried meat treats, not table scraps as you might insinuate if you wanted to paint me as an “overindulgent” owner of a fat pet–any day over a cat who leads an “active,” “natural” outdoor lifestyle and can expect a much shorter life with a higher risk of disease, predation, accidents, cruelty, etc.

Interestingly, I did notice that the Kirkus Review for one of Katz’s mystery novels contains the following: “Katz may never get the hang of plotting a whodunit, but the readers whose buttons he’s so alarmingly skilled in pushing will hardly notice, much less care.” I haven’t read the book and don’t care to, but based on today’s TOTN appearance, I’d have to agree that button-pushing must certainly be one of Katz’s specialties.

Anyway, my point is, you’d almost think people used these tactics and even these specific arguments to win people over to almost any point of view–not just when scapegoating obesity. I think I have FA to thank for helping me to think critically about what’s really going on in this type of discussion.

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