Hispanic pets, their people’s attitudes and the spay-neuter culture
Posted Mar 16 2010 10:00pm
It’s worth noting before embarking on a post with a title like this is that yours truly will soon be bubbling in her 2010 US Census status under the designation, “Hispanic.” The fact that I practice in Miami, the de facto capital of Latin America, should also get a mention. These two bits of data, along with a description of my clientele as more than 50% Hispanic, is probably why I was drawn to the JAVMA article in the first place.
This week’s arrival of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) offered lots great blog fodder. Nestled among the crunchy studies and the three-dog case reports (yawn!) was this piece: “Comparison of strength of the human-animal bond between Hispanic and non-Hispanic owners of pet dogs and cats.”
Though intrigued, I couldn’t help but approach this article with the slit-eyed scrutiny any veterinarian might harbor when something as squishy as the human-animal bond gets quantified. In this case, I'll confess it gets a special jaundiced glance given that the work in question addresses her own ethnicity and maybe even a tad extra prejudice given that none of the authors’ names sounded even remotely Hispanic (not that mine does, I’ll readily concede). Let’s just say I was suspicious of the motivation for studying ethnic differences at the level of the bond itself.
Most of my concerns, however, were dispelled pretty quickly after reading the abstract. Admittedly, this was primarily because the abstract’s conclusion exonerates Hispanics in this way:
“There was no observed association between owner race-ethnicity and and strength of the human-animal bond for Hispanic and non-Hispanic White pet owners in the United States.”
The introduction then went on to explain the authors’ rationale for tackling such potentially touchy topic:
“Because the Hispanic population is the most rapidly growing minority group in the United States and abroad, it is critical for veterinarians to understand how Hispanic clients regard care for their pets.”
Then further disarmed me with this charming anecdote:
...while working at a clinic in rural Mexico offering free spay-neuter services for dogs and cats, we found that male and female Hispanic owners often displayed signs of discomfort when asked if they would neuter their male dog or cat. Many of these individuals were hesitant to neuter their animals, saying it was unfair and not something they would like to have done to themselves. On further questioning, the owners revealed deeply ingrained feelings of machismo (defined as a strong or exaggerated sense of masculinity and stressing attributes such as physical courage, virility, domination of women and aggressiveness) and misconceptions about sexual orientation of their animals, such as questioning whether male dogs would engage in homosexual behavior after being neutered.”
But it all fell apart when I read the following point at the end of the lengthy intro:
"For the present study we hypothesized that cultural variations in how pet dogs and cats were viewed [presumably with respect to spay and neuter status, since the bulk of the intro dealt with this point] would be associated with significant differences in strength of the human-animal bond between Hispanic and non-Hispanic owners, and that these differences would be associated with differences in medial care for pets owned by Hispanics versus non-Hispanics.”
Here’s my read: The hypothesis being tested was that Hispanics wouldn’t share as strong a bond with their pets given that they eschew spay and neuter for their pets. Ergo, this study was based on our very American ethnocentric belief that to spay and neuter is a good thing and that sterilization is often equated with deeper feelings for our animals.
Which raises a whole ‘nother set of questions, right? Beyond an impressive illustration of our human- and animal-related biases, it’s a great description of how cultural touchstones do not easily translate and how even medical procedures like spays and neuters can become a tangibly cultural concept.
Indeed, most of us recognize that spaying and neutering is both the civically accepted approach to overpopulation and––until very recently, anyway––has been incontrovertibly promoted as one of the best things we could do for our pets’ health. But now that we’re learning that spays and neuters might not always the best thing for individual pets, how does that bode for our biased view of other cultures’ practices?
When the tables are turned on how we view sterilization (or any other veterinary practice or procedure), I wonder whether our profession’s ethnicity-focused hypotheses will turn tail, too. But then, I’m Hispanic. Admittedly sensitive. Possibly wrong. But still shocked that this study made the JAVMA.
While I'm gratified to see that JAVMA and these University of Colorado researchers have seen fit to elevate the discourse on the subject of ethnic differences and how they apply to veterinary care, future work needs to approach this subject with somewhat more sensitivity––or at least after making a careful assessment of its underlying assumptions.