The Pitfalls of Practicing DIY Veterinary Medicine at Home

Injured Dog

You could never practice medicine on your 6-year-old child or your aging spouse. It’s not allowed by law (not in the U.S., anyway). Despite clear restrictions against doing so on people, there's no such law protecting pets. As a result, you can practice medicine on pets — that is, as long as they’re your pets. Here are a few unfortunate examples:

  • Treating your dog’s vomiting problem with OTC human drugs
  • Docking your newborn puppies’ tails
  • Euthanizing your pet via gunshot to the head

As long as you don’t cross that fuzzy line into “animal cruelty," you’re OK according to the law. After all, pets are classified as simple property (with a few extra protections). In fact, as far as the law is concerned, your pet might as well be a toaster oven with a “feed, water, shelter and do not abuse” clause.

But what constitutes animal cruelty? At what point is bad aim with an old rifle considered abuse? When is refusing to have your cat seen by the vet a cruel proposition? Does allowing your dog to die of an intestinal obstruction qualify as cruel… or merely clueless?

Veterinarians Can Only Do So Much

Predictably, we veterinarians aren’t big fans of the DIY approach to animal health. We know that animals suffer daily in this country because owners would rather “wait and see” than bring their pets in to have us intervene. Or worse yet, owners minister to their pets' medical needs with well-intentioned tinctures that are potentially harmful. It’s heartbreaking to see people lose pets to conditions that could have been successfully treated. It’s even worse to know we could have at least alleviated their suffering.

Nonetheless, there are two sides to the story.

Seeing as veterinary medicine is so expensive (and getting more so every day), does it not stand to reason that we need to protect the rights of pet owners whose access to care might be denied on the basis of their economic wherewithal?

Veterinarians understand this. We know we can’t exactly tell pet owners they aren't allowed to give their pets OTC human drugs. We can’t tell them that their concoction of drugstore salves applied to their pets' infected ears is necessarily wrongheaded or that they can’t bandage their pets’ wounds.

In fact, plenty of veterinarians work with savvy pet owners to help them provide medical care for their pets at home. Pet owners monitor their diabetic pets’ blood sugar, test their urine on a regular basis, administer subcutaneous fluids and even learn to temporarily stabilize breaks and bandage lacerations in the field (in the case of athletes and hunting dogs, for example).


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