Confessions of a Veterinarian: I Ignored My Own Advice

I should follow the same advice I give my customers, right? Well, I dropped the ball this time, but I’m owning it and explaining what happened.

No matter how much you pet, cuddle or smother your pets with love and affection, you can miss things. By: liz west

Do you all know the expression about the shoemaker’s children having no shoes? It’s like the house painter who lives in a peeling mess of an eyesore or the accountant who is late with his personal taxes.

Well, I am the veterinarian who looked into her Cocker Spaniel’s mouth and smelled a dead fish. Wally’s mouth was a mess. I had neglected my own dog’s veterinary care.

Now I have a bunch of excuses. These probably sound familiar:

“He had a dental 2 years ago. How could he need another?”

“I keep meaning to do it, but I’m just so busy.”

It’s expensive.” (Okay, get real. This is not a legitimate excuse for me. He gets the employee discount!)

All kidding aside, when I looked in his mouth I felt just like clients feel when blindsided by a problem they didn’t know existed or chose to ignore for a while. Some vet should have brought Wally’s bad teeth to my attention. That vet is me. I did bring it to my own attention. And then I ignored myself.

Andy comforts Wally in recovery. Now Wally is up and bouncing around with his clean teeth.
Andy comforts Wally in recovery. Now Wally is up and bouncing around with his clean teeth.

We’re Only Human

Wally’s mouth definitely got worse in a fairly short time, but I had stopped doing his routine dental care at home. Bad veterinarian. That’s right. Like the shoemaker’s kid with holes in his soles, I wasn’t doing the home care that Wally needed.

Second, I truly lost track of time, and I put off something my own vet (me, again) told me to do.

Do you remember last year when I wrote about the Wallster and his ACL surgery? At that time, while he was under anesthesia, I noticed his teeth were not looking great even though it had been only 12 months since his last dental. So I made a mental note that I would clean Wally’s teeth a month or so after his knee surgery. Then I lost track of time — but Wally’s dental disease did not.

Why not clean his teeth during his ACL surgery, you might ask? There is a strong medical reason. Doing a dental during a surgical procedure is strongly discouraged. You don’t want circulating bacteria from that yucky mouth traveling around the body, having a road trip and settling down in that open knee joint. In an ideal world, I should have done Wally’s teeth a month or so before his ACL surgery. I just keep racking up those bad vet caretaker points, don’t I?

The reason I really discovered Wally’s progressively worsening mouth was a toothbrush. I ordered a new doggy toothpaste and finger brush for my patients and tried them out on Wally first. He exhibited pain and hostility. The very meek, mild and even-tempered Wally almost bit me when I brushed those back molars. This led to a closer examination of his teeth and my having to admit that I had dropped the ball with my own pup.

The All-Important Physical Exam

No matter how much you pet, cuddle or smother your pets with love and affection, you can miss things. Even when you discover things, human beings are great procrastinators.

If you bring your buddies in for routine exams and your vet finds something that surprises you — like a lump you didn’t know was there or a rotten tooth — don’t beat yourself up. That’s why you bring your buds in for routine physicals. Fluffy Philomena is not telling you her buried back molar got 80% worse in a year. And do you normally pet Smudgie 1/2 inch from his pooper, where he has a new growth? Of course you don’t.

Even if you check your pet every day, you can still miss problem areas. By: Tony Alter

Dental disease and lumps, bumps and changes to those lumpy bumps are the most frequent conditions missed by caretakers.

Many people bring a pet in for “a red eye,” for example, and haven’t noticed there is an eyelid tumor rubbing on the cornea causing the conjunctivitis. That little bump on the eyelid may have doubled in size in a short period of time. This isn’t your fault for missing it, but now we have to do something about it.

Be Honest With Yourself

If you have financial constraints, as most of us do, prioritize with your vet about what should be addressed immediately and what might be able to wait.

Your veterinarian doesn’t always know how quickly some conditions may change, but he or she can advise you on what to look out for. And know that all kinds of problems can sneak up on your pets, and you are not a bad parent for not noticing.

Try to be as honest as you can with your vet. If you bought 2 tubes of doggy or kitty toothpaste at Petco and can’t use them because Mouse really hates it when you try to brush his teeth, don’t take another tube from your vet and say you’ll brush Mouse’s teeth. There are alternatives.

Maybe your vet can give you some tips; maybe one of the really good tartar diets is a better solution; or maybe Mouse should really get his teeth professionally cleaned now rather than later.

How about the lump your vet really thinks should come off? If you say to yourself that you absolutely, positively cannot spend the money on that right now but don’t tell your vet this, your best friend could be at risk. It’s time to ask your vet more questions. How serious is this lump? How long can you safely wait? What is the most economical way to do something for Teddy right now?

Often the decisions are tough. I have a client right now struggling with the decision to do cataract surgery or not on her 12-year-old pup. One eye or both eyes? This surgery carries a hefty price tag, something I have no control over since this is a referral surgery. She is being honest with me and actually trying to budget for Molly’s future needs since the dog is entering her geriatric years. The pet parent knows that doing the best for an elderly dog is not easy. She is ethically but realistically wondering if she can afford the cataract surgery, faced with the fact that Molly will certainly have other medical bills that may be more immediate.

We’re all only human and trying to do the best we can. We need to be honest with ourselves about what our pets need and try to meet those needs. My Wally is going in Monday for dental X-rays, a thorough teeth cleaning and extractions if need be. He’s not going to be “bumped” off the schedule for any reason.

I’m going to look at those sad eyes asking for breakfast Monday morning and say, “Sorry Wally, but this fast is for your own good. Your breakfast will taste a whole lot better once we get that potty mouth of yours cleaned up.”

And, to echo a phrase I hated as a child, “it’s for your own good.”

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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