When Winning Is Bad

Most of us would happily win a contest, lottery, or competition. I’ve never heard anyone regret a big win at a casino. Enjoying the benefits of a bit of fickle luck gives us a rush, too. That feeling you get when your chair -almost- but doesn’t quite tip over? That’s a win. The human mind loves to play the odds. Some of us are downright addicted to the gamble because of the potential payoff. Adrenaline junkies, don’t think you’re above the game. There’s a chance that parachute won’t open, isn’t there?

There are times that the odds are exactly what you want to put you on the losing end, though. When we’re talking about your chances of illness and injury, you’re hoping that you’re not that one in a thousand, ten thousand, or million. Winning a bout of the flu is one thing. Winning cancer is a whole separate kind of problem.

It’s not all that fair for me to bring up “The Big C” as an example. Yes, it does give us a clear statement of our chances. It also helps us identify risk factors so we can avoid the “win.” Cancer is so scary and close to home, though, that I think we’ll get bogged down in just the numbers instead of the big picture.

Better examples comes up when we talk about the generalities faced by pet owners every day. Should you vaccinate for a given disease? Should you use heartworm and flea/tick prevention? Should you allow your pet to go under anesthesia?

The art of practicing medicine teaches us to avoid promises and to keep to conservative estimates whenever possible. We hate to promise and under-deliver. I do, at least. It’s important to me to lay out the pros, cons, and possible consequences of our decisions. Owners need to participate in this risk assessment, but they’re at a disadvantage. More than one, really. You’ve not had the training we’ve had. You’ve not had the benefit of years of experience and thousands of cases to draw upon. We’re at a disadvantage because we simply don’t know your pet as well as you do. (Granted, I’m generalizing here against my own better judgement. Clearly we can sometimes see things that owners don’t. The reverse can also be true.)

Vets and owners usually develop rapport and can work together to help pets. We’ve got the same goals in mind, after all. There will occasionally be differences of opinion. Ultimately, all I really need is for owners to make an informed decision. I’m far more adamant when I have to advocate for a pet’s quality of life, but I can acknowledge the fact that some owners simply can’t do everything on the “Should Do” list. That’s when we optimize the “Can Do” list and move forward. Guilt, yelling, browbeating, hard sales… just not my style.

There’s a group that I need to bring into the discussion at this point: breeders. It’s a dangerous thing for me to do. I’m going to admit that I’m biased. Consider it a disclosure rather than a conflict of interest. I’ve never been a breeder. I’ve worked with many by way of my profession. Many breeders have not been vets, nor any type of veterinary professionals. What I can speak of is my own perception of the situations as I’ve encountered them.

Breeders have the benefit of having worked with their chosen breeds for a long while. They have lots of contacts in their interest group, too, which is a good thing. On the other hand, they don’t have the benefit of large, well-organized research studies to back up some of their claims.
Vets have the benefit of a lot of hard science and training. We also have the experience of working with LOTS of dogs and cats. Balancing that is the fact that we may not know a particular breed as deeply or well.

This sets the stage for a few really obnoxious contentions. Anecdotal evidence isn’t the same as data. Yes, sometimes anecdotal events are true, and research proves this. Some are not, also proven by research. The burden of proof is on the individual or group making the hypothetical statement.

For example: Breed X is more sensitive to anesthesia! Breed X will die if you give a Lepto vaccine! Breed X puppies have to be on adult dog food! Breed X can’t have pork as a food ingredient!

Often, these statements are what we are faced with in the exam room. The owner is stuck in the middle. Breeders know their own stock well. I know my products well. I don’t think that breeders are all being vindictive, here. These folks care about the animals, too. I get testy when it’s implied that I would do anything I knew was harmful, but that’s a whole other rant for another post.

Is it possible for an individual to have physiology and/or genetics that could make it more sensitive to side effects or dangers associated with vaccines, medications, anesthesia, etc.? Yes, absolutely. Could those problems run in a family line? Yes. So, if a particular breed has a fairly narrow genetic pool, then it’s technically possible for Breed X to have much higher odds of a given problem. Can that be said about ALL of the individuals in that breed? Probably not.

I’ll use one of those earlier statements to illustrate the issue. You’ve purchased a puppy of Breed X. As part of that purchase, you’ve signed a contract that says that you will not have the puppy vaccinated for distemper/hepatitis/parvo/parainfluenza (which is the “distemper vaccine”) before 14 weeks of age. You bring your happy new 9 week old puppy to me. Your kids, aged 5 and 9, have had their new puppy for 2 weeks already and are totally attached. I take a look at the vaccine records from the breeder. No vaccines given at all, but the pup has been dewormed several times. For the sake of the example, we’ll say that this puppy is normal and healthy.

I recommend starting a puppy vaccine series. You knew it was coming. The breeder warned you that I’d want to do this. Your breeder has explained to you all about how Breed X is too sensitive to vaccines when they’re young and must wait until later. My first instinct is to call BS, but for the sake of the discussion here, let’s assume that it may be true. As the owner, you now have two choices to make, each backed by an expert.

If you choose to NOT vaccinate your puppy, what are the consequences? Your pup may be unprotected. It could catch distemper, which is often fatal. It could catch parvo, which is fatal 30% of the time even if treated aggressively.

If you choose to vaccinate, some of the possible side effects include: allergic reaction that requires immediate treatment for anaphylactic shock, anemia caused by the immune system attacking the red blood cells, lethargy and mild pain at injection sites. Some of these side effects could be lethal.

As an owner, you’re stuck playing the odds. What’s more likely to happen? What are the chances of your puppy getting sick? I honestly have no idea how to advise you when you’re staring this kind of thing in the face. All I can do is give you the best information I have and hope we land on the same side of the decision.

Personally, I think that the risks for vaccines are lower than the risks of contracting one of these diseases. The benefits of protecting a dog outweigh the risks. I recommend vaccination. I’ve seen more unvaccinated dogs get sick than I have vaccinated dogs get sick due to the vaccines.

In the end, my perception is that I can do more good by ignoring most of the Breed X declarations and treating my patients as individuals. I don’t know what causes the experiences that most breeders use as support for such statements. Did they receive poor quality veterinary care? Are bad genetics being passed down in a line unknowingly? Or knowingly? Whatever the cause, it lands owners smack dab in the middle of a dispute they rarely have the information needed to sort through. That can lead to bad decisions all around, and the animals suffer for it.

My best advice is for new and prospective owners is to ask questions. When a breeder or a vet makes a statement, ask for support. What makes you say that? What specific things went wrong with your puppies/kittens that makes you say they can’t have vaccines? What kind of anesthetic complications were seen that makes you want to avoid drug Z? What will happen if my puppy or kitten does NOT get vaccines until that age and gets sick from one of those diseases? How many of your puppies/kittens have had these problems? Is my puppy/kitten from the same mother or father as that litter that had problems? What can I do to minimize risk? What happens if a complication arises?

At the very least, you’ll know the rules and have a feel for the odds.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “When Winning Is Bad

  1. Chris Miner

    Hmmm, it’s an interesting conundrum. When we adopted Kibeth, the rescue group told us to find a Greyhound-savvy vet, especially where anesthesia was involved. She was our first Greyhound. We took their advice as gospel. We asked questions at her initial vet visit, and did our best to ensure she got top-notch care. She did. Of course, we were delighted to learn you had worked with Greyhounds before 🙂

    On the other hand, it never occurred to us to not take your word as gospel when it came to vaccines…or anything thing else for the rest of Kibeth’s life. She had her health issues as she grew older; and even though she was in California for her last few years, you were still the vet we turned to when things started to go wrong for her.

    She was a great dog. You always did your level best for her, even when she was 2500 miles away. Run in peace, Kibeth ❤

  2. Greyhounds, yes… and the interesting thing about the special anesthesia with Greyhounds is that the practice I worked at used the drugs that you’re “not supposed to use” on them! They understood the why and how of the special interaction, so it became a useful tool to us instead of a red-flag fear.

    I think that some healthy skepticism is a good thing, no matter who the expert in front of you happens to be. A good friend of mine made a great point with regard to politics. “All you really need to do is to be able to detect bull*.” It put a LOT of things into perspective.

    Kibeth was indeed a great dog, and I miss her. Not nearly so much as you, I’m sure. It was an honor.