Wednesday, June 27, 2007


I've been researching dogs lately, as a possible prelude to getting one, and I'm impressed by the amount of money we spend on pets each year. There's food, veterinary care, and, of course, toys and trinkets for our little darlings. A recent Newsweek article puts the figure at about $40 billion annually in the U.S. Can we justify spending so much on pets when there is so much human need in the world?

I think we're making strides in the war on hunger in the world, but you can be sure that it still exists in some areas. Malawi, for example, a poor country in southeast Africa, after a drought a couple of years ago needed about $150 million to prevent wide spread hunger during the winter. $150 million is a lot of money to a country like Malawi, but in the grand scheme of things it's not much, only a fraction of what we spend on dog food each year in the U.S. (and, for what it's worth, the amount of money it costs to wage the Iraq war for about half a day.)

The above is only one area in which there are great inequities of material goods and other things. I wrote before about how the amount of money spent on one very small premie, say about $500,000 for his hospitalization, could buy insecticide treated mosquito nets for 50,000 Africans at risk for malaria. That same amount of money, if used toward some basic infant care like giving a bath after birth with a disinfectant soap in a third world country, could save perhaps hundreds or thousands of lives.

How do we allow this to happen? Why do we continue to give our dogs and cats meat and treats when we know there are people who could use the money for basic needs? I think the answer is that we are only human, and humans can't seem to do without pets, and we also can't seem to appreciate the needs of other people unless they are right under our noses. I am well aware that people in the Sudan or elsewhere could use my money, but if I don't get a dog it will be because I don't want the hassle and not because I'm going to spend my dog money on aid to Africa (although after I publish this post I might send some money to one of my favorite charities.) I'm guessing that there are even some people in Malawi that have pets; maybe even some hungry people there have pets and feed them.

Actually, I've only begun to talk about all the inequities there are in distribution of resources. Looking at just health care in the U.S., think of how much we spend on dialysis for the very elderly or ventilator care for people with massive head injuries and no hope of recovery, and think of how many prescription drugs that money could buy for people who can't afford their blood pressure medication. The inequities are astounding, the more you think about it. The fact that we are only human, while a true reason for why we treat our dogs better than humans halfway across the world, still should not be an excuse to ignore completely this maldistribution of resources.

P.S. You find out some interesting stuff when researching pets. I've come across information about holistic pet food and a book called Animals and the Afterlife, and discovered that April 24 - 30 was National Scoop the Poop week.


Blogger jmb said...

Good thoughtful post, but remember dogs are worth the hassle.

Read at Eurodog's blog today but written by Byron.

'Tis sweet to hear the watch dog's honest bark
Bay deep-mouthed welcome as we draw near home;
'tis sweet to know there is an eye will mark
Our coming and look brighter when we come.

Do both, send the cheque, consider the dog seriously, and don't forget all those dogs needing homes at the SPCA. How about rescuing a greyhound?

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Wren said...

Hippocrates said "The soul is the same in all living creatures, although the body of each is different." I'd venture to guess there are just as many suffering pets as humans. How many millions of pets in the US alone are put down each year in shelters? Why is a pet's soul any less valuable than a human’s? I’m not advocating for or against suffering or inequity toward any living creature, just making a point that the dog’s life may not be all it’s cracked up to be. I live in a pretty impoverished neighborhood and I assure you the $40 mil we’re spending on our pets isn’t coming from my neighbors. I think the question is more one of our basic disconnect with other living beings, human or otherwise. As humans we're really good at thinking that our particular body and mind could exist in the absence of all other bodies and minds. We miss that we’re of the same stuff, mired in our delusion of separateness. If we truly saw others and our connecters then perhaps things would be different. Imagine a whole Earth full of enlightened humans. Or maybe we’re just too used to living with too much excess in our culture so why not buy the $80 Coach dog collar? We don’t equate those dollars with food in someone else’s mouth. Heck if I know. I’m just going on…

On getting a dog – both my dogs are post-consumer/recycled dogs from the humane society. They are, hands down, the cutest, best, smartest and most wonderfully loving pets and I’m honored they chose me as their human. If you pursue the dog, I would suggest this route.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not trying to be boorish, but if more money does go to mosquito nets, many of these children will grow up to-

engage in civil wars that increase the cycle of violence and poverty

acquire and spread HIV, due to cultural issues around condoms

continue to have children they cannot afford, as above

You or anyone else having a dog is not going ameliorate deep cultural issues, a cycle of poverty or mass grafting and the stealing from the people that goes on in Africa.

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pembroke Welsh Corgi- the best dogs in the world, worth every penny.
And don't feel badly about not giving to charity b/c everytime Bush promises million, or even billions, to places like Darfu etc...he's giving away your money.
So buy a dog and love's the best love money can buy.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I spend money on my pets, I know exactly where the money is going - for food that I feed them, medical care I see them receiving, toys I taunt them with. I know where each dollar is going, and why.

When I give money to help the poorest of the the end, I have no bloody clue where it's going. Oh yes, supposedly it's going to help them. But all - ALL - of the people you're talking about live in deeply corrupt, deeply screwed up countries where skimming is an integral part of everything that goes on. The money I send them may go to feed them. It may go to buy malaria nets. Or it may go to buy guns for rebels, or to build a palace for a modern-day potentate.

I do donate money. I select charities carefully. There are a couple of animals named after me in Africa (an honor). I especially like Mercy Corps - whether it's an earthquake in Iran or a bombing in Bali, Mercy Corps is there. But the desperate people of the world that you discuss in your post aren't desperate in the middle of a functioning society. They're desperate because of enormous problems that my small donation - and even if I were to give away everything I were to ever own, it would still be relatively small - can do very little to fix. In many cases, really making their lives better would entail something like kicking out the entire political class of their countries and replacing it with mythical noble creatures who would be something better, but last I checked, I don't quite have the magic skills to be able to conjure those up.

I am not, not, NOT trying to discourage charity and giving. Charity and giving are wonderful. I plan to keep them up in my own life as much as I can. What I'm doing is taking issue with the idea that every dollar that goes to our pets is a dollar that, in its entirety, could have gone to feed and clothe someone needy. The story is often a lot more complicated than that.

And, I'll turn this around a bit. Humans have had animals as pets for, well, as long as we've been recording history. Humans have only had personal computers for a few decades. You and the rest of us don't NEED the computers that we're currently using to (in your case) create and post a blog or (in our cases) access and read that blog. We could sell our computers and give the proceeds to the poor, or we could just not update them when they get outdated and spend the money on the poor. Or we could stop buying/renting DVDs. Or we could make rather than buy clothes, and give the money saved to the poor. get the idea. Humans spend money on a LOT of things that aren't necessary for survival that nonetheless give them comfort. Pets, unlike most of those things, are actually capable of appearing to give direct positive reinforcement to people. I'd say it's not so much that we're spending money on cats and dogs rather than on the poor overseas - it's more that we're spending money on ginormous TVs that are never going to cuddle up against us when we're crying or do a half-gainer in the air to delight us after a frustrating day.

wren, my felines are also recycled. And wonderful. All of the fun of cats without needing the socialization of kittens - it's a win-win situation. And yes, of course they're spayed (don't get me started on THAT, or we'll be here all day).

1:33 AM  
Anonymous Dianne said...

Would life be any better for people in very poor countries if you didn't get a dog/treat very tiny premies/spend money on toys for yourself? If you want to send money to charities to buy mosquito nets for people in Africa, great, do it, but don't deprive yourself of things you enjoy simply because others have less.

Alternate argument for getting a dog: Dogs make people happy. Happy people are more generous. Therefore, you are more likely to behave generously and benefit others if you have a pet that you enjoy, including both your patients and people you might consider giving money to through charities.

( seems that I am in favor of your getting a dog, if you want one. Do consider whether you have time for the committment, ie the dog will need walking, playing, and food every day, regardless of whether you feel like dealing with it or not, but if you do want to do it and feel that you can, go for it.)

5:26 AM  
Anonymous Chris and Vic said...

Caring for a pet reinforces
generosity (as someone has already alluded to).

Caring for a pet reinforces our skills in caring for children/NICU infants. That is, since the pet and the child, cannot communicate directly, in words, exactly what they need, WE learn to read their cues and perhaps imagine what they must be feeling/needing.

Touching, stroking, petting the animal (or child) makes us healthier and happier, calms us, lowers BP.

Giving to charity is a generous act, too. But it can also breed smugness or complacency. It is more complicated than caring for a pet.

This thread reminds me that we cannot solve the world's problems, even if we are in "the helping professions". We just (humbly) do our small part, in our corner of the world. In the hope that generosity breeds generosity in others. And perhaps generosity engenders hope.
Chris and Vic

10:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm also of the mindset that I would be willing to donate more to that part of the world if I knew the money was going for food or mosquito nets but like the others pointed out, it could very well be used for guns and bombs used to terrorize the innocent people we believe to be helping.

We have just seen it too many times. From the UN'S Iraq Oil for Food program that was rife with scandal with billions stolen. There was also the Somalia conflict back in the early 90's where the aid we sent was being intercepted by violent warlords and never made it to the starving people. Even the Clinton administration was suckered in again by giving aid to North Korea only to discover it was going to feed Kim Jong Il's military. In turn, Kim Jong was using the savings from that to expand his nuclear weapons program. (They didn't learn from that by the way as Hillary wants to give North Korea another massive aid package.) but whatever, I digress.

The bottom line is that the quality of life for people in those countries is not going to improve if one deprives their dogs of treats, or deprives themselves of an iphone. There are lots of things the American people could do without, like a $7 cup of coffee from Starbucks or designer handbags. However, I don't think we should deprive ourselves as we work hard for all our comforts. As an American taxpayer, you are among the most charitable people in the world.

Sure I wish I could help those who suffer over there by "making a difference" but its not as simple as just throwing money at a problem. We are already struggling with the aftermath of ousting a violent regime, and I'm afraid thats what it would also require to help the people of Africa. Are we willing to get ourselves into that again? I just thank my lucky stars every night that my children were born in this country and will never know the suffering of those unfortunate enough to be born over there.


10:15 AM  
Blogger Doc's Girl said...

Wow...very interesting information...

11:32 AM  
Blogger Misha said...

go to your local shelter--save a life. Plenty of purebreds...If all else fails use Come on over to my blog to read what it is like to have 4 dogs.....

12:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post was particularly interesting by alluding to the fact that we care more about our pets than we do the children of Africa dying of malaria. Apparently, back in the 60's and 70's we cared more about birds as well.

DDT was banned in 1972 mainly because it was believed at the time that it was harmful to birds. How many billions of children have died from malaria because we believed it to cause egg shell thinning in birds? DDT was an incredibly effective public health tool but was made politically unpopular by a small group of people with a very loud voice.

I'm all for protecting ourselves from chemicals that could be harmful but studies have shown that actual human consumption of DDT has been far below the "acceptable" levels. Not only that, but a lot of birds actually flourished to the point of being pests while exposed to DDT.

Yes, I'm all for bringing back DDT to end the suffering of those children. For those of you ready to aim pitchforks at me for suggesting pesticide, I would invite you to visit and also A little critical thinking can go a long way.
They are already spraying tiny amounts of insecticide in Zambia and it has been incredibly effective. If money is the issue, well then lets just stop wasting billions of dollars on the "global warming is going to kill us all" fad.

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ND states that we spend too much on pets, and that we should divert more resources to the poor.

Why stop there? We spend $10B a year on movie tickets. Imagine how many African kids could go to school if we'd just stop going to the movies. Imagine how many mosquito nets the $50B we spend on beer could buy.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The inequities in funding for medication often lies with the drug companies.Maybe drug companies should spend less money on promotional crap for health care professionals and instead lower the price of their drugs. Then maybe consumers could afford them.

3:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reminder- I think I'll donate to Heifer International in memory of my beloved dog.

3:30 PM  
Anonymous Chris and Vic said...

This is all about priorities, yes?
Getting them straight, as it were?

Is anybody planning to see Sicko this week? I heard a PBS interview this evening in which other healthcare priorities are named by Michael Moore, the filmmaker: health insurance leading into universal healthcare.(For which there is no critical mass yet that believes that healthcare is a basic human right.)

Which brings me back full circle, to my dog, adopted from the Humane Society. When I adopted him (for about $100), the fees included a microchip in case he is ever lost, neutering, immunizations, some ongoing follow-up care for a "pre-exiting condition," AND 3 months of health insurance!!!!

What does all this say about how we view healthcare?
Chris and Vic

10:57 PM  
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3:08 AM  
Blogger doctor trousers said...

but if i didn't have my dog, i wouldn't have a reason to get up in the mornings. if i didn't get up in the mornings, i wouldn't go to work, and even though i'm only a tiny little plankton-doctor in the hospital ocean, i wouldn't be doing anything worthwhile. for those of us without the social graces to find mates and have children, dogs come close.

go for the greyhound. they are incredibly lazy and affectionate. the only downside is the 4 foot fences ...

6:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why should generosity be any less when it's bestowed on an animal? Suffering is suffering; no need to split hairs here about which species is more worthy.

The millions you speak of are actually spent on only the most fortunate of pets. I volunteer at an animal shelter, and I see animals get euth'd all the time. Lots of them would make great animal companions for someone but the shelter is full and there are not enough good homes for everyone. IMO this is a much greater problem than the spending of large amounts of money on the pampered elite.

If you're going to get a dog, I beg of you to visit your local shelter. Shelters are full of wonderful dogs - some purebred, even, if that's important to you. You will be saving a life, but more importantly, that animal will bring something very precious and valuable in return... and it will make you a better person.

1:23 PM  
Blogger neonataldoc said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments. Sorry it took me so long to respond and post again - I was out of town for a few days and didn't get to the cyber cafe like I had hoped.

The comment about DDT and malaria is especially thought provoking.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Labor Nurse said...

Don't feel guilty one bit about getting a dog. They can be a lot of work, but are so worth it. Besides, as someone who usually loves animals more than people, you will find yourself wishing people were as kind as your dog.

11:16 PM  
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12:36 AM  
Blogger Beach Bum said...

I recently read an interesting book where Raymond Coppinger suggested that from an ecological point of view, North American dogs are little more than parasites. Intersting idea.

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand your comment, but why are doctor's living so much higher on the "food chain" than the normal population? Who is raising the cost of healthcare? I would like to know what YOU charge for care. If it is anywhere close to others in the medical population, it is unjustifiable. I don't even visit doctors until I can no longer treat myself with herbal and homeopathic remedies, because I don't want to even be associated with the medical population. This means that I haven't seen a doctor in over 10 years. (Midwives deliver my babies-- they don't go to the hospital either-- unless it's to fix something I can't.) Sorry, but dogs is one thing, doctors are another.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Rx8hQD said...

jmb's "...but remember dogs are worth the hassle" implies what, that humans are not? I find it amazing (& appalling) so many would say dogs are no less important than humans. Of course they are! Police dogs are trained to take a bullet so a human won't. And the 1st 'anonymous' says African children saved "will grow up to:..." What about the low-SES preemies the OP is saving? Won't they likely grow up on welfare, in special ed., having more low-SES babies at a young age? So...he shouldn't save them???

7:33 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

then maybe you should never buy another starbucks coffee again. or maybe you shouldn't ever buy sweets or desserts for yourself at the grocery store. my point is, don't blame the animals for people's indifference! that is truly unfair. the problem is people, not pets.

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1:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't even believe we spend that much on pets a year! But, a lot more money will be wasted on Obama's new health care plan. The change won't happen, and the false promises will let us Americans down once again. Let's worry about home base before we tend to foreign countries; tell your Congress men, women, and Senators to repeal the health care reform at!

10:58 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm having a hard time getting over the "how much we spend on dialysis for the very elderly..." Sorry, but I hope all of you who let that one slide by might need a wake up call. Why is high blood pressure a more worthy defect. Who gets to decide when someone is too old and not worthy of life.
I also think it is great if people want to donate money to a charity of their choice they should. Our government should not have the right to tax us, and then give our money to a country controlled by dictators who put their own people in such dire situations!

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