She died peacefully at home

Paw print in snowHollywood has a lot to answer for. Movies and TV portray death as this noble, painless (other than a few dramatic twinges), peaceful event. Our hero is shot in the chest, and manages to gasp out his last profound words before slumping slowly over in the arms of his beloved (or his faithful sidekick). There’s blood, but not too much. Or the old person at home in front of the TV who just “slips away”. These things are not the norm, not the expected. Death is often the opposite of peaceful.

I can’t answer to what really happens with people, though my ER doctor clients can, and it sounds roughly the same as what happens with pets. Natural death (unassisted by any hospice-type medications) isn’t generally pretty, it isn’t sanitary, and it is generally not sentimental or peaceful. It’s profound sometimes, but mostly it’s just very real. Continue reading

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The Inverse Flower Phenomenon

Cards sepia smaller and header size

We do death really well. Cards like these tell me so. And so do the flowers. Any veterinarian will tell you about the flower phenomenon.

Let’s say I do a fantastic job on a case. A complex diagnosis, something rare and generally fatal, and after many hours of research (something that’s never billed to a client) I finally have it figured out. I go out of my way to obtain the right drug from an obscure source at an overseas university, treat the disease appropriately, manage a couple of complications that arise, and save the patient’s life.

The client quietly thanks me. Sometimes more effusively, but by the end it’s like we’ve run a marathon together and everyone is tired. Nobody talks about it again.

Let me take that same patient and euthanize him, though, and it’s very different. The client is sad but grateful for the way it is handled. And about half the time they send me a thank-you card. One in ten actually sends me flowers.

And that’s the flower phenomenon. It’s this weird upside down ratio of

what you expect : what really happens

When I was new to the profession I thought that if anyone ever sent flowers it would be a celebratory thing, like a life saved or a really good job done in surgery. I was puzzled to find that the flowers for death outnumbered the flowers for any other reason by a ratio of at least 20 to 1.

Moreover, they weren’t funereal flowers. We were getting bright bouquets of beautiful blooms that were the polar opposite of mournful. And I realized that these were celebratory occasions after all. They were from pet owners celebrating and commemorating the life of their friend, a life that I shared with them in a small way.

And they were also saying, “Hey, we know that was hard for you, too. We’d send cookies, but maybe you have a nut allergy; we don’t know you that well outside of the hospital stuff. But here are some flowers to cheer you up, and think about Norton when you see them. He really loved you, too.”

How do I know that? Because Norton’s dad wrote that to me. I still have the card. I still have all the cards.

One vet’s view on euthanasia

People often ask me how I can “be a vet” and save lives on the one hand, and euthanize animals on the other. The truth is, oddly, that the best and worst parts of my job surround the end of a pet’s life.

On the one hand, it’s a heartbreaking time. Any time a life ends, there is sadness. If the pet was well loved and will be missed beyond words, I feel bad for the owners and the grief they are going through. I’ve been there many times myself, and I know how it feels not only to lose a dear friend and family member, but to have to make the decision to end that life. The sense of loss and emptiness is overwhelming.

Sad in a different way are the times when pet is alone and without family to hold him and comfort him at the end. Although I really do understand why this happens and why people cannot stay with their pets, the animal’s aloneness carries a poignancy that is heartbreaking. Continue reading

Here, kitty kitty!

I opened a hospital in a very urban, very “big city” neighborhood with lots of restaurants and shops and things available within walking distance so people don’t have to drive cars much. People live cheek-by-jowl in high-rise apartment buildings and live-work condominiums. No houses. We see an unexpected number of large breed dogs, like pitbulls and labs. And we see cats, but not as many as I expected. I thought we’d see lots, what with all of the apartments.

It seems that people are reluctant to take their completely indoor cats to the vet because there is a perception that they don’t “need” to go. I agree that completely indoor cats with a stable pet population in the home don’t need to be vaccinated much, if at all. This completely depends on the specific home, of course. Cats who live with a kind volunteer who fosters litters of feral kittens should probably be vaccinated intermittently. Cats who are loners or have a couple of siblings and the  family isn’t going to be changing any time soon… not so much. Continue reading