How One Veterinarian Answers the No. 1 Question
As an emergency and critical care veterinarian, I have to say "What would you do if this were your pet?" is one of the most common questions that I am asked – nearly every day of practice.
“What would you do if it were your dog?”
As an emergency and critical care veterinarian, I have to say this is one of the most common questions that I am asked – nearly every day of practice. (Followed closely by “Is that spinach in your teeth?” and “Why no pants?”)
Owners of sick and injured pets often face a hard call on what to do when they need to make medical decisions; on the one hand they want to give their furry companions every chance at recovery, but on the other hand they don’t want needless medical testing or treatment, don’t want to see their beloved pets suffer in vain and there are significant financial concerns about the high cost of some medical interventions as well.
So, they often look to me to help guide them. I am a pet owner (as someone once said; “Don’t trust a skinny chef” – same would seem to hold true for a petless vet…) and I have medical knowledge that could potentially help them make the right decisions. That seems to be what everybody wants – to make the right call. Not to stop treatment the day before their pet gets better, or to have treatment drag on, long after any hope or dignity has fallen away, running up a soul-crushing medical bill in the process.
But they are asking me to straddle the fence. I can’t be the loving, caring pet owner at the same time as I am an emergency clinician. When my pets take ill, I have another doctor take over, and I go into pet-owner mode. Medical decisions have to be made with consideration and compassion, but without emotion, and emotion is central to the bond between a pet and their family. I have learned to dodge this question when I am asked, and give the truthful answer that…I don’t know what I would do. When I am evaluating a patient, I do see the individual, I do consider the weight of the life before me, but I can’t allow (too much) emotion to cloud my decisions. Pet owners, and my patients, deserve clear thinking (as much as I can muster, anyway – college took its toll on the grey matter) that is devoid of irrational thought. Before you start thinking that my home planet must have been called Vulcan – I am not just a series of ‘yes/no’ algorithms when deciding what to do with patients; I take the owners wishes and capabilities very seriously and I consider the entire pet; not just a collection of moving parts. But I try to separate what I want for the patient from what I can offer them and the family.
It is a curious thing to live with pets – these furry, once-wild critters sharing our home and hearth with us. We trust our children’s lives (and facial features, and fingers) to their good nature, we feed them, sometimes clothe them (Paris Hilton – you logged on, honey?), and spend money on their medical needs and food. The pets of those of us who treat animals for a living (the pets of vets) are a curious breed as well – more so than your average dog or cat or capybara or chupacabra (had one of those as a pet once – didn’t go so well for me or the goats).
If you took an accounting of the number of legs, eyes and ears of the pets of vets and divided by the number of hearts (typically, one per being is all that is allowed, except on my home planet of Vulcan…) you would almost certainly get an odd number, because these are usually odd pets indeed. Missing this bit or that, invariably named “Lucky” and usually cast off from some troglodyte member of society who either did it grievous bodily harm, or adopted them and just couldn’t cash that ‘promise to take care of you, feed you and get you fixered up when yer busted’ check.
We see them in practice; they come into us on a gurney, and we say, ‘this one time, I will not kill this pet because the owners can’t pay.’ If the owners can’t do what it takes to fix them, we step in and see if there is just a little bit more room in our home. Negotiations are started with spouses, introductions are made to the current administration. We do it to offset the sometimes shocking amount of careless death and casual taking of life that takes place in a veterinary emergency facility: we do it to preserve our humanity just a little bit. There are nights in the ER when I will euthanize 6 or 8 pets, and have to hold the hands of the family while I do it. “Compassion fatigue” is the name that counselors have given the phenomenon of someone who just can’t work up the emotions any more; in the ER we just call it ‘burnout.’
In addition to my two-legged love, Gretchen (also a critical care specialist) and my son, Connor, we share our place with five mammals, a handful of fish and a nutty Parakeet named Fontina (we have always wanted to name a pet after a cheese product; Gretchen is from Wisconsin, natch).
We do have some ‘normal’ pets (well – I think they might be a bit touched in the head, but they look OK from 10 paces), but most of them have been run through with arrows, had limbs lopped off or been set afire by the aforementioned troglodytes.
I am sure you can guess what happened to our little cat, Crispy. Sterno was first runner-up for naming.
So until you meet him, take care of the ones you have, and try not to set them on fire. Don’t ask your vet what they would do if it was their pet on the exam table; chances are you won’t get an answer. At least, not from me.