Vets Who Make a Difference in The Lives of Domestic Cats and Dogs
Although an estimated 100 million cats and dogs live in homes in the United States at a given time, many face the dangers associated with abandonment. U.S. animal shelters kill millions of relinquished dogs and cats each year. Uncounted millions more cats and dogs suffer illness, exposure, poisoning, starvation, and lonely deaths in vacant lots, under the buildings of cities and towns, on interstate highways and on country roads.
From our beginning in 1957, Friends of Animals has assumed a leadership role in advocating low-cost spaying and neutering as the most effective means of preventing the births of domestic dogs and cats and indirectly sparing many animals from grim fates in shelters. For five decades, we have operated the leading coast-to-coast cat and dog neutering initiative in the United States. This unique system, powered by a membership of 700 veterinarians located in 34 states and Puerto Rico, helps people obtain affordable procedures for more than 40,000 animals each year. Our educational efforts have drawn thousands of calls each month to our toll-free spay/neuter information line.
In this feature, we ask veterinarians who have made a difference in professional attitudes about domestic animals for the scoop on veterinary education, the business of medical treatment for pets, and the outlook for future trends in veterinary care in the public service.
Two students, Gloria Binkowski and Eric K. Dunayer, were pioneers: two of the first people in the United States to refuse to vivisect and still obtain their veterinary degrees. Their message? Never doubt that individuals can make a difference. Dr. Eric Dunayer, now a consulting veterinarian in clinical toxicology in Illinois, communicated with Friends of Animals electronically. FoA caught up with Dr. Gloria Binkowski during a typically busy workday at a New York animal hospital offering holistic veterinary therapies.
The Doctors Are In: FoA Speaks with Two Vets Who Are Changing the Field
FoA: How did you become activists in the veterinary field?
Dr. Eric K. Dunayer: When Gloria Binkowski and I filed suit against the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School in 1987, many people were surprised to learn that veterinary schools required students to harm animals. At Penn, veterinary students practiced surgery on healthy homeless dogs, who then were killed. Gloria and I refused to do this. Many professors and classmates reacted to our conscientious objection with hostility.
FoA: And you stood by your principles even at the risk of not graduating?
Dr. Gloria Binkowski: Yes, because we just could not rationalize harming sentient beings. In our argument against the practice of vivisection, an expert witness stated that vet students in Britain are not obliged to vivisect, and yet the British course of veterinary study is respected throughout the world. If British vet students can excel without resorting to vivisection, surely we could do it. And of course, then, it should not be mandatory for the average biology student. We were, in effect, challenging the way scientific community treats living animals across the board, and that is one of the reasons we met such resistance.
FoA: And you both obtained your degrees in a way that met your ethical demands?
Dr. Eric K. Dunayer: Yes. Ideally, Gloria and I would have opted to complete our surgical training by spaying healthy dogs in need of adoption. Although that is what we proposed for the settlement, we did our practice surgery on dogs who were already scheduled for euthanasia for terminal medical conditions. They were anaesthetized, we did the surgery, and the euthanasia was performed without the dogs being allowed to awaken.
FoA: Did your refusal to vivisect change the requirements for veterinary students?
Dr. Binkowski: Although we did not end vivisection at our veterinary school, the school now offers students an alternative to vivisection. This started a trend. If a top veterinary school offers alternatives, then any vet school in the country should be able to develop a curriculum that does not subject animals to vivisection.
FoA: What kind of advocacy best supports your work for dogs and cats?
Dr. Binkowski: I try to be the best possible doctor I can be for my patients. I try to educate humans about the needs of dogs and cats. In this world filled with homeless animals and crowded pounds, the kind of work done by Friends of Animals — active, continuous promotion of low-cost altering — is, I think, most important. I would urge people to tell veterinarians about FoA’s plan and encourage them to support it. What makes it particularly appropriate is that you denounce the practice of de-clawing or otherwise mutilating animals.
FoA: We understand that operations such as de-clawing, as well as tail-docking and similar procedures, are outlawed in Britain. Is there an end in sight in the U.S.?
Dr. Binkowski: I’ve heard some vets’ offices schedule an appointment to neuter a cat, and then ask, “Do you want the cat de-clawed too?” Unfortunately, the operation is still all too common. And the term de-clawing fails to indicate the severity of the loss. Imagine having your nails removed — with the third part of your fingers, up to the joint, taken along with them. Cats are born with claws and need to keep them for psychological well-being and for safety reasons, and for physical health as well. Cats need to be able to flex their claws in order to stretch their backs.
FoA: Given that most veterinary offices support the procedures, perhaps one can better understand why people have these things done. How can we change attitudes? What alternatives do you suggest?
Dr. Binkowski: Keep the cat’s nails clipped; that may solve many problems related to scratching. Cats also like to be given a post, or a piece of old furniture with rough upholstery, or a tree limb. A fibrous welcome mat can work. Turning a carpet over and allowing the cat to scratch the rough underside may also be a hit. Also, many cats tend to avoid foil, which can be used in spots as a deterrent. As far as I know, there is one study that claims that de-clawing really doesn’t change the way a cat acts, but anecdotally, there are reports that aggression or other undesirable behaviors might increase after de-clawing. This has been my clinical experience as well.
FoA: Why do veterinary offices perpetuate the thinking that encourages such dubious solutions and results in anxiety for the cat?
Dr. Binkowski: Because veterinarians have traditionally been beholden to the human client, not to the nonhuman patient.
FoA: How does veterinary education perpetuate that point of view?
Dr. Binkowski: Animals are viewed as educational tools rather than sentient beings.
FoA: Why has veterinary medicine been so slow to understand animal rights?
Dr. Binkowski: I think that, by, now, the veterinary profession is aware of the tenets of animal rights, but it resists the philosophy because it presents a threat to “business as usual” in profitable areas of the food industry and vivisection by pharmaceutical companies and universities.
FoA: They didn’t want to see other animals the way you see them.
Dr. Binkowski: No. It was a threat to their livelihood and their way of life.
Dr. Dunayer: Partly because of its vested interest in “animal industries,” the veterinary establishment opposes changing the status of nonhuman animals from property to rights-holders. As more veterinary students are trained in a way that respects nonhumans’ moral rights, the veterinary establishment will become more progressive.
FoA: How do you see this happening?
Dr. Dunayer: Since the late 1980s, U.S. veterinary schools have radically altered their policies regarding students’ surgical training. At eight schools, practice surgery no longer entails harm to animals. At virtually all others, students are allowed the alternative of surgery that involves no harm. Increasingly, veterinary schools are avoiding the moral inconsistency of treating some animals as cherished individuals and others as disposable objects.
FoA: Dr. Dunayer and Dr. Binkowski, you held the teachers to their word, and you both made it out with degrees to boot. In your professional lives, how do you work for change?
Dr. Binkowski: In any way I can, I support students who wish to study biology or veterinary medicine without performing vivisection because that’s one of the ways the veterinary profession will change. Other than that, I work in practices which are compatible with my veterinary philosophy. Also, two areas of interest recently are feral cats and pain management.
The trap-neuter-release method, or TNR, involves setting humane traps for feral cats — often cats whose parents were abandoned and began a cycle of bearing kittens outside — getting them altered and providing veterinary help, and then providing a source of food and water, and basic shelter from the elements. It teaches respect for the cats as individuals, and attempts to steer communities away from allowing animal control or wildlife services agencies to round up the cats and kill them.
FoA: Dr. Binkowski, what do you say to people who have concerns about the cats outside posing a threat to birds and other animals?
Dr. Binkowski: I understand their concerns. I’m a bird-watcher. Do cats kill? Yes. After all, one of the reasons humans transplanted domestic cats to the Americas had to do with the cats’ proclivities for killing rodents. But that brings up another point: Free-roaming cats are a human responsibility.
FoA: What is the best answer to the problem?
Dr. Binkowski: In my opinion, TNR is the best way to respect the birds, to phase out the feral cats, yet respect the feral cats who are currently alive and are still the responsibility of the communities in which they appear. In the big picture, killing these cats does not solve any problems for birds. It is a short-term response at best, and it assumes there is no way to respect birds and cats at the same time. In England, TNR has phased out a substantial number of colonies. TNR has been studied, and it is a proven method.
FoA: What is happening with pain medication?
Dr. Binkowski: The veterinary profession is evolving in a very positive way. Giving appropriate pain relief post-op for surgical procedures — including spaying and castration, trauma, and chronic conditions such as arthritis — is now considered to be the standard of care at veterinary teaching institutions and other high-quality hospitals and clinics. The people who are teaching veterinary medicine, particularly anesthesiologists, now accept that animals may be in pain without necessarily vocalizing; and, even further, they recommend that one assume an animal would be in pain from just about any kind of surgical procedure. Obviously, relieving pain is the humane thing to do, but studies have shown that sentient beings who get pain relief also recover more quickly, with fewer complications. In this day and age, not affording adequate pain relief is inexcusable. As one anesthesiologist has said, if you are not high-tech enough to address pain, you shouldn’t be doing surgeries either. But unfortunately, there are still too many veterinary practices which — for a variety of reasons, none of which is acceptable — have resisted offering adequate pain relief to their patients. People should evaluate their own veterinarian’s performance in this very important area.
FoA: What is your most important future goal?
Dr. Dunayer: I look forward to the day when most veterinarians will advocate, rather than oppose, nonhuman rights.
Post script: After FoA’s consultation with Dr. Binkowski and Dr. Dunayer, and researching information from leading anesthesiologists, we have undertaken to change our contract with veterinarians who participate in FoA’s spay/neuter certificate plan, ensuring that veterinarians agree to supply narcotic pain relief to cover post-operative pain.