Charlie almost never has loose stools. In the last ten years of his boxer life, he has had off and on stomach issues, seasonal hair loss, neurologic issues, behavior problems and heart problems to name a few, but he almost never has loose stools. Even so, I spent over a month treating him symptomatically, from trying a new easily digestible prescription diet to dewormers to probiotics to antibiotics for his digestive tract. After many different combinations of drugs and two kinds of food, everything seemed to return to (almost) normal. Be that as it may, I could not shake the feeling that something was not right. It was very unusual for him to have any form of diarrhea and it was even more unusual that it was not responding well to any of the medications or foods. His doctor told me that the next step would be an abdominal ultrasound but given the fact that he was bright and alert, not vomiting, and eating and drinking normally, she didn’t feel it to be necessary just yet. I struggled with the decision for well over week, going back and forth with whether I was going to do it but eventually I pushed the doctor to perform the ultrasound so if nothing else, at least I would feel better. I was expecting them to either find nothing of concern or to find some form of inflammatory bowel disease. Much to my (and the doctors) surprise, they found a small mass in the region of the pancreas and duodenum which was later diagnosed as pancreatic adenocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive form a cancer in dogs. This early diagnosis has provided me with precious time to spend with Charlie before he starts feeling the side effects of such a horrible diagnosis, time that most people do not get. While we can never know for sure if his symptoms were caused by the cancer, had I not followed my instincts and pushed the doctors to dig a little deeper, this grave diagnosis may not have been uncovered until he was critically ill.
When it comes to the health and behavior of a pet, no one will know them better than the owner. Most dogs have a handful of barks and their owner will know which one means danger, which one means playtime, and which one means I want your attention. Every animal has its own quirks, its own routines, its own likes and dislikes, its favorite toys, and its favorite foods. When one of these things changes, such as the Labrador that is no longer taking his daily swim in the pool or a beagle that is no longer taking its favorite snack, it can be a tip off to the owners that something is probably wrong. Owners can use these changes in their pets’ normal day to day activities to motivate them to keep a closer eye on that pet in order to monitor for any illnesses or injuries. Take, for example, a dog that has been getting a large milkbone every night at dinnertime for years and then suddenly one night refuses to take it. Finding this quite unusual, the owners kept an eye on him for the rest of the night. It soon became obvious that he was experiencing some kind of pain on the right side of his face and it turned out that he had fractured of one of his upper molars. This fracture caused exposure of the root which then became infected and was incredibly painful. This is one of many examples of how even the smallest changes in a pets behavior can mean big problems. This human animal bond, defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association as “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both,” is undoubtedly exceptionally important to the health of the animal. Studies have shown that the simple act of petting a dog can cause the dogs heart rate to decrease and demonstrates the importance of the bond. It is not only beneficial to the pet but will also be beneficial to the owner. The human animal bond is something that must be recognized, accepted, and nurtured by all veterinarians so that owners can feel comfortable following their intuition.
Prior to attending veterinary school, I spent five years working as a veterinary technician and receptionist for a handful of practices and those experiences have allowed me to work with a wide variety of veterinarian personalities and styles. From those who go strictly by the book to those who think outside the box, I have seen them all. There are many times when a pet is brought in with vague, non-specific signs that are hard to diagnose, and sometimes it was hard not to think that the owner was overreacting; either the pet was not sick or it was nothing to be concerned over. Many of the doctors I have worked with would approach this situation by the book, run the recommended tests, and if the tests come up negative, they often will suggest a “wait and see” approach. They would often imply to the owner that everything appears to be alright, scooting them out the door, sometimes prescribing medications that are more for the owners’ benefit than for the pets benefit. There are, however, a few gems that take the clients concerns seriously, going out of their way to make sure the pet is properly diagnosed, and taking extra steps if the standard tests do not show anything. These veterinarians recognize that the client knows their pet better than anyone, and takes them seriously when they say something is wrong, even if it is something as simple as “my dog just seems off”. Over the years, if I learned one thing, it is that this is not the exception, but rather it is the rule. If an owner believes that something is wrong with their pet, the majority of the time, they are right. Take, for example, a dog that is taken to the vet because the owner believes it is no longer wagging its tail normally. This is something that anyone other than the owner probably would not notice and even the vet may not view it as “abnormal”. However, that tail may actually be painful or the dog may have no control over its movement. Something like this can actually be one of many important neurological and/or orthopedic diseases. These diseases are ones that have the potential to be better treated if discovered early on in its course, therefore, it is incredibly important that pet owners trust their instincts when it comes to their pet.
The same thought process can be applied to the search for a new pet. Beyond considering which pet is best given your lifestyle, whether anyone else lives in the house, the amount of grooming you are willing to do, and expense, among other things, instincts should also be taken seriously when you are thinking about bringing a pet into the home. First impressions are crucial when meeting a potential new pet for the first time. If you fall in love with a dogs picture online and then go to the shelter to meet it, do not let that initial connection impair your judgment. If the dog is not living up to your expectations, do not ignore that feeling just because it is cute and cuddly or because you feel bad for it. Providing a pet with a good home includes more than just providing shelter, food, and water; it is important to have some kind of loving bond with them as well. I have met a lot of people who thought they found the right pet because it was perfect on paper, but later found it was not meant to be because they did not click for one reason or another. In 2006 I went out specifically looking for a Boston Terrier and the minute I saw Chloe I fell in love but I still asked to meet her and for the opportunity to spend time with her. We went into a private room and she was running around the room, playing with toys like you would expect a crazy terrier to do. However, the second I sat down on the floor she crawled into my lap, curled up in a tiny ball, and fell asleep. That was the moment I knew she was mine. Even to this day, if I sit down on the ground when she is running around playing, she will curl up in my lap and fall asleep. I trusted my instincts and continue to do so when making decisions when it comes to and on behalf of my pets, especially the difficult ones.
Another way owner instincts comes into play is when making the difficult decision to say goodbye. I have been a part of many euthanasias when working as a technician and the steps each owner took to get to that point were all different from one another. There is no right way to make such a sad and difficult decision, but following your instincts will not let you down. As stated before, the client knows their pet the best and they are able to best determine when quality of life has reached a point that is no longer acceptable to them. The same thought process behind recognizing when a dog is sick can also be applied to euthaniasia; beyond the fact that the animal may be showing signs of an illness, if your pet is no longer doing the things it loves, then it may be time to let go. One great tip I got from a former employer was creating good day and bad day jars to aid in making this decision. By relying on all those small things that you know make your pets day a happy day, you place something like rocks, pennies, or paper clips in the jar that corresponds to how you feel the pet did that day. After a preset amount of time, whether it is one week or one month, whichever jar is filled higher can help you make the decision. A good example of this was a former clients older dog that was suffering from severe arthritis. For the longest time she appeared to always be in great spirits, still loved to eat and drink, and would chew on bones daily. It was not until she would try to get up and walk that you would realize just how painful she was. Unfortunately the medications were not helping much anymore and even though the owners had to help her more and more to get around, they felt that she was still living a good life. One day the dog would not even get up for food, which was a first, and it was then that the owners decided they had to trust their instincts and consider letting her go.
As I write this it has been 8 weeks since Charlie’s cancer diagnosis and I have been incredibly lucky to be able to spend time with him as a “healthy” goofy happy dog. I have been given the opportunity to make more memories with him that are not tainted by the symptoms of an illness and it has also given me time to prepare myself for the inevitable decisions that lie ahead. Even though at times I felt foolish, going against the suggestions of the doctor on what felt like a whim, in the end I will always be thankful that I trusted my gut and followed my instincts. I now know that when it is time to have to make the decision to let him go, I know I can trust my instincts without much regret. As James Herriot, author of All Creatures Great and Small, so eloquently said, “I hope to make people realize how totally helpless animals are, how dependent on us, trusting as a child must that we will be kind and take care of their needs.