Ask the Vet - Vallard C. Forsythe, DVM

Death of a pet – two perspectives

It’s one of the hardest things a veterinarian has to cope with, and it happened to me recently.  I received a dreaded telephone call from a client I’ve known for many years, one who I’ve always been very fond of, and one who I know loves her dog very, very much.

This client, who I’m confident has always been very secure in not only my abilities, but in my sincerity and loyalty as her pet’s doctor, has entrusted me for years with both the rigors and the honor of caring for her dog.  My office has provided all the primary care, vaccines, preventative care, dental work and surgery her companion pet needed over the years, and I’ve enjoyed answering her numerous (and well crafted) veterinary questions and being part of a team to keep her dog well and provide the best medicine for him.

Through the client’s shock and tears, she managed to make me aware of the fact that her pet had died suddenly, and she had no idea why.

As I gleaned more information, she began asking if there was anything I could do to bring her pet back.  This is not unusual.  The shock and trauma of a sudden pet loss creates and response of fear and denial, and even signs of rigor mortis prevent some owners from accepting the actuality of the situation.

I remember feeling so many different emotions when I got that news.  I had to maintain my position as her veterinarian to calm her down and issue sound advice.  At the same time, I wanted to reach out and offer a warm and caring hug to a friend in need, a friend whose loss is of course unbearable and at the moment, completely confusing and unbelievable.

All I could realistically do was calmly attempt to reassure her that precious pet had indeed passed away, to offer my condolences, and let her know I would do everything I could to find out what happened. Still, I was feeling tremendously helpless.

I found myself trying to console my client by letting her know that when a seemingly healthy and robust pet dies suddenly as in this case, often the cause is a cardiovascular anomaly, such as a blood clot or heart attack. These deaths are usually quick and relatively free of pain because they are swift.

Although I couldn’t be sure without an autopsy, I urged my client to try and hold on to the most positive and best thoughts she could until I could gather more information.  My only course of action was to steadily support and uphold her and make arrangements to have her bring the body to my office for examination and necropsy (autopsy) to determine the cause of death.  Knowing what caused her pet to die was very important to her.  Had her dog gotten into something in the yard?  Had somebody poisoned him?  Had something else insidiously happened to her 8-year-old “healthy” dog?

As with humans, in veterinary medicine the procedure is conducted in a specific, methodical way in order to assess and sample (if desired) the internal organs of the animal to determine if there is anything abnormal that is likely responsible for causing death. Within this patient’s heart, inside the right chamber, was a tumor that had begun to bleed and send clots into the blood stream.  It was a hemangiosarcoma, a tumor found commonly in the spleen and heart base of dogs.

There were a few small nodules in the spleen of this pet as well, but it was not clear whether the tumor started in the heart or in the spleen.  What is clear is that a tumor like this could have easily gone unnoticed by the owner.  This little dog could have behaved quite normally while a tumor of this type began growing in the heart.  Even before any clinical signs appeared that would have alerted my client to seek my help with a diagnosis and possible treatment, this tumor took her pet’s life.

There was nothing she could have done.  There was nothing I could have done.  I hope with all my heart that she is taking comfort in her memories of the beautiful and wonderful dog she loved so much.  I can only pray that he did pass on as I hope he did, with little pain and a quick ride over rainbow bridge.  And I sure hope they both now how much I love them.


Farewell, dear companion

This will not be an elegant letter, as I am still shaking and unable to see clearly through a stream of tears as I write.  But I need to share that Echo died very unexpectedly at home on Friday night.  As nearly all of you know, he has been my steadfast, intensely loving, unwaveringly loyal, devoted, willful, cajoling, and amusing companion for ten years.  I have worried what this time of life would feel like, and in all honesty, it feels worse than I imagined.

I found him lying very still with his chin resting on his front legs, avoiding my eyes.  He looked as if he did not feel well, and I let him be.  Later I found him in a place he never lies, tucked behind the sofa.  His eyes were open, but not alert; he was extremely still.  I had no idea that this would be the last time I stroked my loving dog’s face and put my head to his chest.

Unfortunately, I let him be and walked away to finish what I was doing. Remarkably, at 6 p.m., guests arrived for dinner and Echo’s unbridled exuberance returned to 100 percent for one last explosive greeting at the front door.  I’m so sad now that I shut him outside on the terrace for a “time out.” This was his last and very near the end.

I wish so much I could have looked him in the eyes and thanked him for taking such good care of me through what has truly been, without doubt, the most intensely challenging years of my life.  When I brought exuberant Echo into my life, I knew what was good for him would also be good for me.  And with that outlook, I gave up my job, home, and friends in Chicago and began a long period of seeking and exploring and searching for new experiences and a home out West.

I’ve had such joy sharing the long walks in the woods, along the ocean and lakes, through deep Sierra snow…. and looking out, scanning the landscape for hours, side by side.  I don’t know what happened, but I’m so painfully sad in its wake.

I know each of you knows or has known this powerful bond.  Since Friday I’ve been pacing hypnotically around the house, well into early morning, unable to lie down.  After years of growing accustomed to the warm weight of Echo’s head resting on my feet at night, or feeling the firm support of his back against mine, or his head under my chin, I’ve drawn the curtain across the bedroom for now and have slept on the floor.  I know with time, this will pass.

- Frances

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