And, as human birthrates fell, pets took the place of children in some families. In 2014 there were 179 million cats and dogs in the U.S., up from 98 million in 1980. Today, according to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), more than 80 percent of pet owners think of themselves as their pets’ moms and dads. Americans love their pets so much, they spent $35 billion on veterinary care in 2015. ... In contrast to human medicine, in which everything from the nurse-patient ratio to the caloric count of injections is mandated and overseen by a web of government agencies, veterinary medicine is largely unregulated. And pet owners pay cash: Vets don’t deal with insurers haggling for better prices or questioning whether that vaccine or ultrasound or blood panel is really necessary. ... when veterinarians make fatal mistakes, they face no real financial consequences. The law hasn’t changed to reflect the attitudes of the average pet owner; courts still treat pets as property. ... a typical medical malpractice insurance policy for a veterinarian costs less than $20 a month. ... Corporations now own 15 percent to 20 percent of America’s 26,000 pet hospitals, and consolidators, copying the model pioneered by VCA, are buying them fast. ... The cost of veterinary care has risen even faster than the cost of human health care, more than doubling since 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Suppose you wanted to build the perfect dog from scratch. What would be the key ingredients in the recipe? Loyalty and smarts would be musts. Cuteness would be as well, perhaps with gentle eyes, and a curly, bushy tail that wags in joy in anticipation of your appearance. ... You needn’t bother trying. Lyudmila Trut and Dmitri Belyaev have already built it for you. The perfect dog. Except it’s not a dog, it’s a fox. A domesticated one. They built it quickly—mind-bogglingly fast for constructing a brand new biological creature. It took them less than 60 years, a blink of an eye compared to the time it took for wolves to become dogs. They built it in the often unbearable negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit cold of Siberia, where Lyudmila and, before her, Dmitri, have been running one of the longest, most incredible experiments on behavior and evolution ever devised. ... Except for house pets, most domesticated animals do not form close relationships with humans, and by far the most intense affection and loyalty forms between owners and dogs. What made the difference? Had that deep human-animal bond developed over a long time? Or might this affinity for people be a change that could emerge quickly, as with so many other changes Lyudmila and Belyaev had seen in the foxes already? Would living with a human come naturally to a fox that had been bred for tameness?