What factors do you consider when deciding on proper animal care?
It's been said that columns should raise tough questions, then provide answers. This column -- on difficult choices facing livestock producers and pet owners -- has the questions covered. Answers? Well, you'll need to come up with them yourself.
It's been said that columns should raise tough questions, then provide answers. This column - on difficult choices facing livestock producers and pet owners - has the questions covered. Answers? Well, you'll need to come up with them yourself.
Three personal memories to set the stage:
Decades ago: Standing in the barn on my family farm and listening to a cow, injured during a difficult delivery, moan in pain. She had received skilled care from a veterinarian several days earlier and had a 50-50 chance to survive. But she was suffering nonetheless. (And died a few days later.)
Many years ago: A co-worker agonizing on whether to borrow thousands of dollars to pay for an operation that would extend the life of a very old and ill pet for a month at most. (The decision was, no operation.)
A few weeks ago: Two veteran ranchers at the annual convention of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association discussing how much they struggle with potential life-or-death decisions for the treatment of sick or injured cattle. They want to do the right thing, but aren't always sure what that is.
Overhearing the ranchers' discussion got me thinking about thorny questions facing both livestock producers and pet owners:
• When should humans put an animal through pain to (possibly) extend its life?
• Should economic costs and benefits be factors in that decision?
• What role should compassion play?
As I said, tough questions for which I have no answer.
So I asked Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University Extension service livestock specialist. He's been a rural vet, a university professor and a member of the Pfizer Animal Health veterinary operations. He's talked with ranchers, consumers and livestock industry officials around the world; he knows a lot about animals, science and human behavior.
I didn't expect him to have definite answers; the questions are just too complex. But I was confident he'd have some thoughtful insights.
Right on both counts. No hard answers ("I don't have an algorithm to run this through," he said wryly.) Useful observations, however, including this one from his own recent experience:
A new calf was stepped on, and its leg fractured. A cast would be needed, which could cost money, and even with it the calf might not survive. But Stokka went with a cast.
"I wanted to give the calf a chance," Stokka said, adding that he thinks almost all livestock producers would have done the same, regardless of economic considerations.
In most cases, animals survive when their injury or illness isn't particularly severe. Stokka, citing a professor he had once, referred - in a phrase I really like - to the healing properties of "the tincture of time and green grass."
Consulting with veterinarians about the best course of action can be wise. Vets provide medical expertise and a somewhat detached perspective, Stokka said.
But vets can get emotional, too, especially when it involves an animal such as a horse that's particularly close to a family.
"These are difficult decisions, and you can't take out the emotion," he said. "I've been doing this a long time, and it still affects me."
One more observation from Stokka: Sometimes euthanasia is the best option. Veterinarians take euthanasia seriously and are committed to doing it as as humanely as possible.
One last thought from me:
I'm not a pet owner. I grew up on a ranch and have owned cattle. So I understand livestock owners' perspective far better than pet owners' point of view. But I'm confident in saying that just about everyone who cares about animals, as livestock or pets or both, will need at some point to make difficult decisions about them that involve economics and compassion.
I don't have answers or solutions. All I can do is raise the questions.