Gazette Vet: The Circle of a Pet’s Life

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By John Andersen, DVM

The Andersens’ former pet Kaya
The Andersens’ former pet Kaya

Just over 14 years ago, I made the giant leap from a veterinary student to a practicing veterinarian. I was a bit terrified about “practicing” the fine art of medicine and surgery after graduating from veterinary school. I was loaded with information, but zero experience.

Now, filled with both knowledge and experience, I am still practicing that fine art.

Along this journey, I have made countless wonderful relationships with both clients as well as their pets. From the excitement of a new pet, to the frustration of an unexpected illness, to the deep sadness of loss, my appreciation for the human-animal bond has grown tremendously.

Recently I have entered into a new phase of my veterinary career. I am now starting to see the end days of pets that I met as new puppies or kittens. Essentially, an entire generation of pets is slowly getting ready to expire, and as I consider how much these animals have changed over their 12- to 14-year lifespan, I also cannot help but consider how the clients’ lives, as well as my own, changed during the course of a pet’s life.

Back then, Michelle and I had just gotten married, a year before we found jobs in Charlottesville. I recall when we were looking for housing, and Michelle drove me out to Crozet (she is a U.Va. alum). As we crested Rt. 240 in front of The Highlands neighborhood, I was struck by the beauty of Bucks Elbow Mountain, wrapping its breadth around this place. “Whoa!” I thought. “Can we live out here?!”

The rest is history. We were making roots.

Back then, many of my long-time clients were young as well. Like us at the time, a very common demographic of a new pet owner is a younger individual, or younger married couple, without kids. Getting a dog or cat seems a natural “first step” as we start our own journeys in this world. I recall the excitement and the pride of these new pet owners, so excited to open up their lives to these pets and ready to give a part of themselves away in exchange for unfailing love and companionship. They were making roots, too. Of course there were many families and older folks getting new pets as well. Everyone seems to share the same sense of excitement in the start of a new life together.

Back then, this generation of pets were just babies. Hyperactive puppies, crazy kittens, shy SPCA adoptees, or knucklehead adolescents, these pets were giving their new parents a run for their money. Potty training, behavioral issues, separation anxiety, eating things they shouldn’t have, there were a lot of visits to the office for these pets and I literally got to see them grow up. They were spoiled. Long walks, weekend hikes and endless play sessions, these pets were truly living the good life.

Time marched on. People got married. They had kids. They lost loved ones. They changed jobs. They moved away, and moved back. They lost their health, and regained it. I truly feel privileged to see so many people travel though life. Our yearly (or more!) veterinary visits were also mini catch-up sessions, trading stories on life, work, families, etc., in addition, of course, to catching up on their pets. Although I wasn’t necessarily “friends” with all of these people in the close sense of the word, we definitely had a relationship and it has been very rewarding to have so many relationships over the years.

Time marched on for the pets as well. Most pets seem to age without a trace, looking as healthy and active at 10 as they were at 1. But for many, there were problems, trauma, broken bones, infections or allergies. For others it was simply one string of bad luck after another. Pets’ roles in their homes certainly changed over the years. The once “only child” dog now has two young children who take up all the attention in the home. For some pets, their owner’s job or health changes started to affect them. And then there are the pets who continued to live one adventure after another, always in the spotlight.

Whatever their life changes, I have been privileged to see all these pets grow up. Most humbling to me is that I actually have a relationship with them. Whether it’s one of my “knucklehead dog buddies” who I get to play around with, or a scared cat who can feel confident that I’m not going to harm it, the moments when pets and I exchange respect for each other are truly a favorite part of my job.

Recently, some of these pets are starting to die. For some, 12 is really old. Age is not a disease, but with age comes some sort of eventual breakdown, cancer, heart disease, organ failure. It’s so difficult handing out a terminal diagnosis to an owner I’ve known for years, but at the same time, I think it’s comforting coming from me, “their vet.” “You know him,” they may say. Yes, I do.

Finally, we share a space again as we prepare to let the old pet go. You’d think these moments would be filled with tears. And weeping is always a part, but there is also often laughing, joy, and a sense of relief as we all recall the wonderful life these pets lived, how they touched our lives, how lucky they were to have the homes that they did, and how we owe it to them to let them go peacefully.

Time marches on. New pets come, new jobs come, and our lives will constantly be changing. It’s these relationships we make that stay with us. Focusing on relationships, giving them the respect and energy they deserve, makes our lives more full, and gives us a lot to remember when another page is forced to turn.

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