Animals deserve our kindness

Our dog Spike is unwell and the vet isn’t quite sure yet what’s wrong. Spike had a day when she wouldn’t get up – not for treats, not even when the loved neighbour visited – and now she doesn’t walk or toilet normally. It’s something to do with her spine, that much is clear, and she’s been referred to a surgeon for tests. We’ll know more soon. 

Spike is both totally self-centred and totally giving in the way that animals other than humans often seem to me to be. Sometimes I think she understands better than us how all God’s creatures are meant to live. She’s intensely interested in her relationships – us, our neighbours, my son’s friends, his godmother. Her other enduring interest is food. Spike loves human food but will settle for dog treats if chicken breast, eggs and lamb shanks are not forthcoming (on account of the vet’s having told us again we should stick to dog food because she’s a dog). Only as a last resort will she mope over and chew on the oral-health special formula for dogs, just to keep body and soul together.

Two horses died after this year’s Melbourne Cup. One of them, Admire Rakti, developed a written-in-the-stars-rare condition that also affects human athletes in which the horse’s big heart pumped blood so quickly it went into arrhythmia and then stopped. Track vet Brian Stewart, who examined Admire Rakti on the morning of the race at the request of the Chief Steward, said nothing could have been done beforehand to save the horse. He felt a need to point out that racehorse owners love their animals. Given what we’re feeling about Spike this week, I can understand that they do. Our animals are completely dependent on us, more even than our children, whose job is to grow to independence.

Admire Rakti’s death has prompted debate about whether horseracing is cruel, particularly the use of whips by jockeys. I have to confess I didn’t know we whipped horses in any context but especially for sport. Admire Rakti’s jockey, who was fined for whipping the horse too much in the Caulfied Cup – there are rules about how much whipping you can do – whipped his horse just once during the Melbourne Cup, the Chief Steward said, and then stopped because the horse didn’t respond, possibly already unwell. According to one vet I spoke to, horses have a sensitive and explosive flight response. They run and keep running, perhaps beyond the point where they should stop. From this perspective, Admire Rakti ran himself to death while we watched.

The debate about whipping horses turns at least in part on whether you believe the whip causes pain. I’ve learned from Spike’s recent experience that animals can’t tell us where and when it hurts. Our canny vet Fraser reads the signals– a dog may lick its lips in discomfort, for instance, or a gait can be ‘off’ – but we can only know so much. Research by the University of Sydney’s veterinary and animal behaviour professor Paul McGreevy analysed the official records kept by race stewards of jockey use of whips, and video footage of race finishes. In a first small study – 48 horses – McGreevy found all but one were whipped – you’re only supposed to whip a horse that looks like placing – and the horse that wasn’t whipped won its race. A subsequent study found the rules on whipping horses are honoured more in the breach than the observance. McGreevy wants to do some research on larger samples and use a thermographic camera, which would show inflammation after whip strikes, indicating pain experienced, but the Australian Racing Board, which is self-regulating when it comes to its treatment of animals, won’t allow use of the camera.   

When my son is sick, Spike curls up with him on the bed. Sometimes she licks his face – a lot – but mostly she just lies there sending good vibes. If horses are created to run, dogs are created to be unconditionally loyal. We don’t yet know what’s wrong with Spike, but there may be hard decisions ahead involving more or less pain and suffering, a longer or shorter life, and/ or money. I hope we’ll have the courage to do what’s in her best interests when the time comes.

From The Courier-Mail Qweekend magazine 23 November 2014 following two deaths after the 2014 Melbourne Cup horse race. For more on Spike's illness and recovery and the marvel of vet surgeons, read here