Learning to understand what pets can’t say

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if they could talk? Vets will hear this question many times from pet owners in the exam room. It is certainly true that in many cases, if we could get some answers to a few simple questions from our patients, we could possibly shorten our list of potential causes for any given situation without having to perform a single test.

That said, in truth, I think that this fact poses more of a challenge to the pet owner than it does the veterinarian.

Imagine if you waited until your friends or family said, “you don’t look well, you need to see the doctor.”

Now imagine if it was also innately programmed into you to hide any sign of illness or discomfort, how much time would pass between the first day you “just didn’t feel right” to the point where someone told you to get help? This is the challenge the pet owner faces.

From a proactive health care perspective, this is the main reason why we as veterinarians consider wellness screening, i.e. general health screening tests in apparently healthy pets, to be so important. It is often our only chance to catch certain illnesses at the stage where we can help.

It is also the reason why we so often uncover chronic illnesses in patients who seem to be experiencing an acute episode. It’s not that the disease was not there yesterday and it is today, it’s that the body’s ability to compensate for and hide the signs of illness have finally been overwhelmed, and suddenly the fact the pet is ill becomes obvious to everyone.

Sadly, it’s not only during the diagnostic process that the fact our patients can’t verbalize their feelings can be a challenge; it also comes into play when a pet is approaching the end of their lives. When faced with a terminal illness, many pet owners will look to us to help them determine “when it is time”.

More often than not when I have this difficult conversation I will do what I can to encourage every pet owner to worry less about doing something “too soon” and more about the risk of doing something too late. I remind pet owners that the burden of understanding that death is approaching is ours to bear. Our pets only know how they feel in that moment; they are spared the fear of the unknown that people in the same situation would face. It is so important during these times to remember that the instinct to survive will push a pet to do anything they can to hold on, and hide their suffering, not understanding that they will never feel better. I have seen it too many times: a loving pet owner, waiting for that sign that the time has come will hold on until it is obvious that their pet is suffering. All too often when that day comes the poor pet owner is left wishing they had acted the day before.

I have one story close to my heart that I will often tell pet owners during this difficult time.

A number of years ago, I found myself through phone calls and emails to my sister in New Zealand helping her through a terminal and rapidly progressive illness in her young pug Mitchell. Mitchell’s illness required massive doses of immunosuppressive drugs to control and he was beginning to suffer from the side effects. He started to have some pretty bad days and the end was near.

One day my sister called me to tell me that she woke up that morning and Mitchell was happier than he had been in weeks, he ate his breakfast normally and wanted to go to the park, which he had been having little energy for. Everyone knew he wasn’t truly getting better, and we knew he never would but he had a very good day, all things considered. My sister decided that would be the day she would let him go. I think that this was the bravest and most selfless decision she could have made, and certainly the right one. Everyone knew that one day Mitchell was going to have the kind of awful day that would make it obvious, it was only a matter of time.

My sister spared both of them having to see that day and I know that if Mitchell could have talked, he would have thanked her for it.

Dr. Nigel Skinner kewbeachvets.com

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