By John Andersen, DVM
My childhood impressions of being a veterinarian— heck, even my impression during veterinary school—was that I was going to be playing with animals all day, making sick pets feel better, and getting lots of licks and nuzzling as a sign of appreciation. Boy, was I wrong! What they should’ve told us in veterinary school was that we were signing up to become professional animal torturers, at least in the eyes of the animals! I’m pretty sure that after 12 years of practice, I’ve never once seen a dog or cat who has enjoyed or appreciated getting a vaccine or having their rectal temperature taken.
Yet typically at their veterinary visits, domestic dogs and cats are incredibly polite and gracious. Cats tend to just freeze, seeming to sense that if they can just be quiet and don’t move, things will be over quicker. They often accept their vaccines or blood draws with an eerie calm, even though they are clearly nervous on the inside.
Most dogs are generally so social that they see the visit as another chance to make a new friend and maybe get a treat or two. The shots and temperature taking are speed bumps on the way to another treat or more pats on the head. Even for the nervous ones, they tend to behave with incredible submission, making me wonder sometimes, “How many shots would it take for you to growl?”
I often wonder, what do these pets really think of me? Dogs and cats are certainly capable of memory and relationships. Do they remember Dr. Andersen? Do they think I’m the professional animal torturer guy? Do the sick animals ever appreciate that the reason they got better was that I had to poke them and shove pills down their mouth? Do they think I’m just a really weird friend of their owners?
These random thoughts and emotions came flooding in when I recently had to put a dog named Annie to sleep because of end-stage cancer.
Annie was a yellow Labrador Retriever who was always very nervous at our office, to the point where she would often tremble when I would examine her, terrified that something bad was going to happen. For her part, the concern was justified. We had years of wellness visits, where vaccines, blood draws, and rectal temperatures regularly took place.
Unfortunately for her owners, Annie was a frequent flier for problems, Lyme disease, a herniated disk, not one but two knee surgeries. Annie had a lot of unpleasant vet visits, but despite her anxiety, she was always sweet and would never ever bite or growl.
Earlier this year, Annie came in with a rather large lump on her lip. Initial testing showed that it was concerning, so we scheduled surgery and removed it. Unfortunately, a short time later Annie came back in with huge enlargement of her local lymph nodes. I knew then that the cancer had spread systemically and that her time was going to be short.
This broke my heart. Annie was a dog with whom we had been through a lot. Between surgeries and diseases, Annie was always keeping my job interesting and challenging. And though she was not the type of dog to jump up on me and lick me affectionately, it was clear that she eventually began to have a relationship with me and my staff. Call it a truce: You guys do what you need to do. I’ll stand here and shake, just please be nice to me. I always liked Annie because she was her dad’s best friend and I could appreciate what a good companion she was. In all the cliché ways, she was a good dog.
We began some relatively benign chemotherapy to try to keep her comfortable and alive for as long as possible. Annie was a champ, doing her best to keep up a charade of normalcy despite her growing lymph nodes.
But more recently it was clear that she was in trouble. Her bad days seemed to be growing in number. One day she came in not eating and very lethargic. According to her owner she hadn’t eaten anything for a day or two. Annie never missed a meal. As I entered the room, I was pretty convinced it was going to be the day to let her go. But Annie just looked up at me and nervously wagged her tail. I got down on the floor with her and gave her a big hug, just like I would my own dogs, just to show her in a simple way that I cared for her, and that today wasn’t going to be a “torture day.” I got out some milk bone biscuits, and sure enough she started gobbling them down while wagging her tail. It was a profound moment. I could just feel a level of trust and, dare I say, friendship between us. She was clearly telling me that today was not going to be the day. We fed her a ton of biscuits.
The next week, Annie became more ill and finally we put her to sleep. After doing this part of my job hundreds and hundreds of times, I have to admit that it doesn’t make me too sad anymore. The vast majority of pets we put to sleep have lived spoiled lives and are simply at the end of their line. But with Annie I felt sadness. This dog had let me into her sacred circle of trust and friendship, which was pretty humbling for this veterinarian. I was reminded of what a great impact our pets can have in our lives when we open up and let them in.