One of the best decisions I ever made was to follow in the footsteps of my dad and become a veterinarian. Not only do I get the joy of caring for dogs and cats all day, but I get the unique pleasure of developing strong relationships with the families who bring them in. Every day I am reminded of the incredible bond formed between families and their four-legged children.
Remember when you brought in your “first baby” to see your veterinarian for its very first check-up?
You know, the dog or cat you had before you had kids? Do you remember all those appointments through all those mischievous months of chewing or scratching furniture and eating things it shouldn’t? I once saw a Beagle mix that ate 2 pounds of red velvet cake, and a Lab puppy that swallowed a whole packet of razor blades! And being in New Orleans, I’ve encountered numerous pets that have eaten whole boiled crawfish and Popeye’s chicken bones. My favorite is a golden retriever that ate an entire Mexican food buffet, made for 20 people! Yep, it is an adventure welcoming a pet into your home, and you think that you will never love anything as much as this “first baby.” This is the member of the family who teaches us all about the fun in life … and effortlessly, teaches us all about love.
What is unique about this family member is that they cannot directly communicate to us when they are sick. I have yet to encounter a pet bringing themselves into our clinic, which puts a lot of pressure on you to recognize that there is something wrong. This makes developing a good relationship between you and your veterinarian essential. Thankfully, there are countless wonderful veterinarians to choose from. One of the best parts of my job is meeting a new patient and their devoted family for the first time. This is one of the most important vet visits your pet will have. I love watching the puppies and kittens grow into their personalities as much as you do, seeing them through those years of high energy and trouble-making … and, as time passes, their first surgery, ear infection, dental cleaning and all the annual visits in between. And at the same time that this “first baby” is getting older, I am witnessing a family boom as “real baby # 1” comes, then maybe dog or cat #2, and then baby #2, baby #3 … eventually it’s a full family affair, and you are coming in with a crowd of children and pets for each annual vet visit! Those are the best.
Time flies through those years, and quite arguably, it goes by too fast. Unfortunately there comes a time when that “first baby” gets older and faces an illness from which they won’t recover. The whole family knows there isn’t much time left. “When is it time to say goodbye?” is a question I hear often from families struggling with that end-of-life decision when their pet is suffering.
When is it truly time? That’s tough because there is not one answer. There are many variables, and it would be cold and unfair to our pets to make it so simple to apply the same response to all of them. Each situation is unique to the pet, pet’s condition and the owner. There is so much that you put into this decision: Are they suffering? How do we know it’s the right decision to let them go? How do we tell the kids? How do I deal with the grief?
Four pieces of advice I hope can help you when you face this sad and difficult time:
Know Your Pet
The first and best advice I can offer you is this: Know your pet. Know his likes, dislikes, routine, eating habits, favorite activities, favorite toys, favorite foods, drinking habits, bathroom habits, etc. No one knows your pet better than its family. Your veterinarian relies most heavily on your observances to help guide you through this process and help assess your pet’s quality of life. Veterinarians can be great diagnosticians and run many tests, but if we are ignoring how our patients “feel,” we have not lived up to our promise of being your pet’s doctor and equally as important, your pet’s advocate. Don’t get me wrong; procedures and lab work are incredibly useful, and often necessary to give your pet treatment options and assess prognosis. That said, even the most complex set of diagnostics won’t tell the full story. A dog’s quality of life is not always reflected by its test results. In fact, there’s an old saying among veterinarians my dad often quotes: “dogs don’t walk on their x-rays.” I’ll add that they certainly aren’t reading and stressing over their test results either! My point is that your dog or cat doesn’t know they have cancer, but they do know what they love and what they do not love … and they have put their trust in all of us to know the difference between the two.
Open Communication with Your Vet
The second piece of advice is to have an open communication and trusting relationship with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian is here to help guide you and answer any questions about your pet’s condition. The more you can communicate with your veterinarian, the better they can provide you with the best recommendations tailored to your pet. There might be treatment options available that are simple and more non-invasive than you thought. Or it might be that there is nothing known to help keep your dog comfortable, and the best decision is to not prolong their suffering. Ask your questions. The more you know about your pet’s condition, the more you feel that not only the most informed decision has been made, but also the most humane and timely decision as well.
Be Honest with Your Children
The third piece of advice is to be honest with your kids about sickness and death. For instance, I do not recommend you telling them that your pet went to live elsewhere on a farm. For the young children in the family, I avoid big words and long explanations. Keep it simple. They understand more than you think. They will grow from this experience, and when they get older, they will appreciate and respect your honesty. When our dog Newman died, I was terrified to break the news to my 3 year old daughter, Anna Kate. After all, this was her best pal! She learned to crawl by crawling to him! As a toddler, she happily gave him her food from the table. And up until the end, she loved to lay next to him in the grass on beautiful days. I just knew this news would devastate her. I tried to follow my own advice, and I simply told Anna Kate, “Newman got very sick, and he wasn’t getting better. Sadly, he died and we aren’t going to see him anymore. But, in order to get well again, he went to heaven to live with God.” Afraid of her reaction, she instead stunned us with, “that’s great, Mommy! GOD IS EVERYWHERE!” My tears of grief became tears of joy as I realized that she was right: Newman’s spirit was and would always be all around us.
Of course there were questions later, and we did our best to answer them in a manner we felt she would understand; this will differ from child to child. It is sad when our children lose their first pet, and they need time to grieve, too. To help them cope, there are two books I recommend to children of all ages: Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant. You will not get through these books with a dry eye.
This brings us to the tough time. You think the challenge of knowing when to say goodbye was the hardest, but once that time passes and your pet is gone, the real struggle sets in: grieving the loss of a loyal and special member of the family. Even with all the busyness of life, work and kids, there is still a large void in your house. Whether your pet had a long or short life, it was never long enough, and we wish they could have stayed with our family forever. After all, your child learned to walk by pulling up on your dog’s fur … you just pictured he’d still be around for high school graduation! Losing a pet makes you realize the many joys they brought to your home and family. A sign outside my parents’ house reads, “A house is not a home without a yellow lab.” I know a lot of people who would agree.
How do you handle this incredible loss? My fourth and final piece of advice is be thankful. What a blessing they were to your family! Let all those memories be a source of strength to help you fill that void. Instead of reflecting on the length of their life cut short, reflect on the life that they lived. Their memory lives on in the world around us. Your dog or cat may be gone, but rest assured, they’ve left their mark – you are a changed person for having been loved by your pet.
While sad and difficult to say goodbye, it was worth it for every moment you shared. A friend of mine told me in a sympathy note when we lost Newman, “the grief will fade…but NEVER the love.”
About Emily Lemann
Emily Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. She grew up in Lakeview and is a graduate of Isidore Newman School. She attended Louisiana State University for college and received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. She is very passionate about her career with animals and works in a small animal practice in Uptown New Orleans with her dad, Dr. Gene Zeller. She and her husband, Jason, live in Metairie and are the parents of a 4 year old daughter, Anna Kate, and a 10 month old daughter, Olivia. They also have 2 furry children: 2 cats, Mike and Amelia. When not at work, Emily most enjoys spending time with her family. She also loves her church, her friends, LSU football, dining out in New Orleans, Mardi Gras, traveling, creative writing and pottery.