Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Thursday, 10 September 2009 13:35 UK

Should pets have a 15m hospital?

At the University of Glasgow's new Small Animal Hospital
Dylan the Labrador undergoes treatment

A new hospital has opened in Glasgow with MRI and CT scanners and a hydrotherapy pool - all for pets. Is it right to spend £15m on a treatment centre for animals when humans have to wait for the same treatments?

There will be many who will say that spending large sums on pet health is far more legitimate than, say, spending the money on sports cars, holidays or any other luxury item.

But there will be some who will question the idea that thousands should be spent on a CT scan for a cat at the University of Glasgow's new Small Animal Hospital.

Here, a leading animal ethicist suggests we should take far better care of our sick animals, while another philosopher questions the priorities of our society.

Revd Prof Andrew Linzey is director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, and author of Why Animal Suffering Matters.

Humans are a selfish species - we breed and domesticate millions of animals for our own purposes of companionship and control, and then we complain if "too much" money is spent on their medical treatment. It doesn't seem too much to have one state of the art veterinary centre for animals serving the whole of the UK.

Small Animal Hospital
Money for the Small Animal Hospital comes from:
Fundraising campaign
Loan against future fees
Funding from university to reflect the training of vets there
Fees are paid for appointments

All modern medical treatment is expensive. £15m is a lot of money, but it pales in comparison with the annual NHS budget, which will reach £110bn by 2010.

The widespread assumption that all companion animals live in luxury is without foundation. Some animals are over-indulged, but RSPCA records of cruelty to domestic animals are at an all-time high.

We abandon, neglect, maltreat, and euthanise (for our own convenience) hundreds of thousands every year. Our use of companion animals comes at a high cost to them in terms of their welfare and premature death.

It only seems reasonable that we should pay something back for all their love and devotion. We need to bear in mind that these creatures wouldn't exist if it wasn't for us.

We make money out of breeding them (often in sub-standard conditions), selling them, and then discard them when they are surplus to our requirements.

All suffering beings, human or animal, deserve our care
Prof Andrew Linzey

We make them emotionally dependent upon us by separating them from their own families and most of their kin. By creating and exploiting their dependence on us, we incur considerable moral obligations.

And one obligation especially: to look after them properly and to care for them when they are ill.

Human beings in their arrogance think they are the only species of value in the world, so I am asked to respond to this loaded question: "Is it right to have these facilities for animals while humans face waiting lists?" instead of asking the really important question, which is: "Why are humans so slow to recognize their responsibilities to the very animals they exploit for science, sport, farming and - not least of all - for companionship?"

We could equally ask this loaded question: "Is it right to spend an annual NHS budget of £110bn on humans when other sentient species, equally capable of suffering pain, fear, distress, anxiety, terror - domestic animals which we have brought into being and to whom we have a duty of care - are only given a tiny fraction of the medical care they require?"

In fact, all suffering beings, human or animal, deserve our care.

Simon Rippon works at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

Here's an adaptation of a story thought up by the philosopher Peter Singer:

You are driving past a pond when you see a little boy drowning and no-one else around to rescue him, but you also happen to be in a hurry to get your beloved pet dog to the new animal hospital because she is having a heart attack.

If you stop to rescue the boy, the dog will surely die. If you continue on your drive to the animal hospital, the dog will get the treatment that will enable her to survive, but the boy will surely drown. What should you do?

Cat in a state-of-the-art operating theatre
What price to make Moggy better?

Most of us would be rightly critical of someone who chose to drive on by in a situation like the one imagined. But the choice of paying to fund lavish treatment at a hi-tech animal hospital in our present circumstances, rather than helping some of the world's neediest people, is morally analogous.

£15m has bought MRI and CT scanners, a hydrotherapy pool, and various other state-of-the-art medical facilities reserved for the exclusive use of a few very fortunate animals, and much more money will be needed to run them.

Meanwhile, some 880,000,000 human beings worldwide lack access to even basic health services, and 34,000 children under age five die worldwide every day from hunger and preventable diseases.

A little more money spent on health in deprived areas of the world would save many, many lives. Some might invoke the old saying that "charity begins at home" to try to morally justify prioritising our concern for the health of our pets over our concern for the health of people in foreign countries.

But even if this were a good argument, spending £15m on an animal hospital in Glasgow still could not be justified, because the money could better be used to meet urgent NHS needs in the UK.

NHS budgets remain tight, and more money could provide for new treatments, life-saving vaccines, more numerous intensive care beds, recruitment of nurses, and better palliative care, to name a few examples. Should we really be putting our pets first?

A selection of your comments appears below.

Was this built with taxpayers' money? No. So what's the problem? Ethically, this is no different to a private hospital for humans.
Sarah, Birmingham, Uk

I believe that animals should have the treatment they need. This treatment is not free, owners have to pay considerable sums for it or rely on the insurance they have if they have sensibly signed up and pay it. The remark about taking better care of pets whilst being relevant in some cases is not relevant in all cases, animals are just as prone to disease, cancers etc as humans are. Most animal owners take very good care of their pets as do most humans of their families.
Margaret Flint, Broadstairs

Simon Rippon's argument would only be valid if the animal hospital were taking away funds which would otherwise be used for human health. Even then, it would not destroy the case for a balanced allocation of resources between two deserving causes. It's not all or nothing as in his hypothetical difficult question, so I side with Professor Linzey.
Jim Thomas, Richmond, Surrey, England

It's crass to say we shouldn't spend money on an animal hospital when NHS budgets are tight especially considering the mind-boggling sums wasted on the Olympics and entirely useless 'Independent nuclear weapons'. Perhaps instead of the CD I bought myself I should have sent the money to the NHS. You have to have balance and variety in how you spend money.
Brian, Dundee

If the money has been funded by any public money of any sort then it should not have been built. If a private organisation thought it worthwhile to build it and take the risk that enough paying customers will use it then that is a matter for them. As to whether that private organisation should have given the money to a charity to help fund hospitals overseas, that is a matter for them and their decision and not something that the public have any say in.
Jon, Todmorden

Why should a human's life be more important than that of another sentient being? That's an abstract generalisation; more specifically, why should I consider my two dogs, who give me love, company and amusement, as less important than a child with whom I have no relationship and who contributes nothing to my life? Why in general should I consider other members of my own species as more valuable than the members of different species? To do so is simply species arrogance, a selfish subjectivity which assumes only humans ultimately matter. If we are indeed the highest intelligence on the planet (quod non), we should use our intelligence to think more objectively and realise that we are not more important than other life forms. In fact, considering the damage we are doing the planet, it's arguable that we should be considered as much less important.
Sash Lewis, Mons, Belgium

It is perfectly acceptable to allocate this level of funding for an animal hospital, we have a responsibility to ensure that our animals receive the optimum level of care, and I presume that these funds have not been diverted from human patient care allocations, therefore the made in the story regarding the "right" to make this type of treatment centre available to animals, whilst patients are still waiting for the same type of care is somewhat redundant, it is up to the NHS to sort out their own mismanaged mess.
Neil Henderson, Aberdeen, Scotland

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