To Compassionate Vets, Vet Techs and Shelter Workers: This Is for You

There are times we know a pet shouldn’t be euthanized and have to do something about it. I’m very proud of my staff and all our rescues.

Cat with Q-Tip
Saved from euthanasia; still looking for trouble at my home.

Can you see yourself surrendering your pet?

People do it. Every day. Sometimes they have a good reason. Often, they don’t.

Let’s narrow the discussion a bit. Say you DON’T want to surrender your pet, but you feel trapped, backed into a corner, no way out. What do you do?

Calm down. Don’t act in the heat of the moment. Unless your pet is in an emergency medical situation where your decision could mean life and death, you usually have some time to think things through without acting rashly.

Let me share with you my story of the week. Spoiler alert: It has, if not a Hollywood ending, a West Hollywood ending.

Button Boy

Cat pawing at a Q-TipRemember a while back I wrote about the kitty who ate the big hair bobble, went through intestinal surgery, and then almost ate it again? He was 100% 24 hours post op and went home.

His owner called last week. She said she was almost certain her cat had now swallowed a large button from her new winter coat. He had been vomiting all night. The new Christmas coat was chewed and the BIG button was gone. Actually, it was more like a toggle, a big hard knot sitting somewhere in his intestines.

Button Boy was indeed obstructed again. He needed surgery. His owner appeared composed as my associate prepared an estimate for Button’s surgery and aftercare, but Button’s mom was aware of all this. She had been through it just a few weeks ago, and was still paying down the bill.

When my associate went back into the exam room with the estimate, the composure had left Button’s mom. She was crying, distraught. My young owner wasn’t going to let us do the surgery. She couldn’t go into more debt — and even if she did, Button Boy was no ordinary kitten. In all likelihood, she knew he might eat something else down the road and get obstructed yet again. Her fears were legitimate.

My associate and I had a powwow and came up with a few alternatives. We offered a very lenient repayment plan. No deal. We offered her money from our “Dino” fund, a fund set up for needy clients or pets in extraordinary circumstances. No deal. Through her tears, she told us she had decided to put Button to sleep.

PUT BUTTON TO SLEEP? Eek. Kill this 8-month-old orange fur face, with a very upset tummy? He meowed at us as if to say, “Yo, I know that was a stupid thing to eat, but isn’t death a little extreme?”

Quote from Dr. DebDeath definitely was extreme. Of course the money mattered, our owner told us. But even if she could afford it, and she thanked us for our offer of financial assistance, what was she going to do the next time the cat ate something?

She was paying her own school tuition, working as a waitress, and coming up with this kind of money time and again just wasn’t in the cards. I admit I had to agree with her.

The one thing she didn’t think of was an alternative to death for Button Boy. If she couldn’t afford the surgery, and if Button was going to die without the surgery, then she felt the only humane thing to do was to put Button to sleep.

Well, here at Heart-Strings-Pulled-Vets-to-the-Rescue, we proposed another plan.

We offered to get Button out of trouble (i.e., make his intestines a button-free zone again) and re-home him. Button’s owner seemed pleased but still worried. Did she have to pay for the surgery? No, we replied, she did not.

Cat in regrigerator

Vet Hospitals as Sanctuaries

Can vets do this for most pets with a serious medical or behavioral problem and a client with no funds or in dire straits?

Of course not, unless the vet is prepared to open her own little pet sanctuary. Actually, many veterinary hospitals (worth their salt) are a tiny sanctuary of sorts. Many of my vet friends have a number of “clinic cats” or one-eyed Chihuahuas walking around, not to mention what “pets” they may have at home. They’re my friends because a good vet is not in the business of killing. We’re in the business of saving, or finding alternative situations, whenever possible.

That being said, don’t take this as a message to dump your unwanted, problem pet on your veterinarian. Most likely, it is not going to happen.

A suffering animal that can’t be helped, a house cat that refuses to use a litter box, or a dangerous animal without training often cannot be re-homed. But if you cannot keep your pet for good reasons, and the pet is adoptable, it doesn’t hurt to try and surrender him or her. At least ask.

Why do you think most veterinary technicians, as well as vets, have a menagerie of their own? We go through a kind of compassion burnout on a daily basis. There are times we in the profession know a pet shouldn’t be euthanized and have to do something about it.

Quote from Dr. DebIn the case of Button Boy, I believe the owner was heartbroken about giving up her kitten, but her reasoning was solid. The first time Button ate the hair bobble, she brought him to an emergency hospital, spent almost $1,000 on diagnostics, and then couldn’t afford their exorbitant price for surgery.

Luckily, she brought him to “Heart-Strings-R-Us” and he had the surgery at a reasonable cost. But when she moves away from here, she imagined herself in the same situation with this venus flytrap of a kitty, and she knew she couldn’t afford to do this again.

Button Boy is with me right now, and he has made me a much better house cleaner. I put “stuff” away. Nothing on the floor (except what he knocks down.) No winter coats, or hats with tassels, strewn on chairs. Closets closed (without him in them).

He jumped in the fridge while my back was turned. This is a first for me. Finding a kitty-popsicle would have been a very bad thing. This cat is a trial. He also has a Q-tip fetish, plastic wrap obsession and dental floss death wish. We have no open trash containers in any rooms anymore. I carry used personal items around with me until I reach an iron-clad trash container or the dumpster.

The Hit Parade

Katie was missing an ear and half a foot.
Katie was missing an ear and half a foot.

Writing this story has made me very proud of my staff and all our rescues. Let me give you just a sampling of the hit parade in their homes or in our hospital:

  • Diabetic one-eyed pug
  • Three-legged Beagle
  • Asperger’s cat
  • Border terrier missing half a foot and an ear
  • Snot-face, the Himalayan
  • Beagle with Cushing’s, diabetes and hypothyroidism (what’s with the Beagles?)
  • Blind Peke
  • Asthmatic cat
  • Biting Cocker
  • Screaming conure
  • Epileptic Cocker
  • Alzheimer’s cat
  • Mangy guinea pig
  • Attack rabbit
  • Hairless Yorkie
  • Blind chinchilla
Cat getting asthma treatment
Obi gets his asthma treatment.

I think I see a theme with the missing limbs and eyes here.

No joke, there’s more, but you get the idea.

For all shelter workers, vets and vet techs out there who know what I’m talking about, I bow to your compassionate spirit. Cheers also to your understanding partners and families! But remember, if your partner finally puts his or her foot down, while the unwanted puppy with the broken leg is in your arms, you can always say, “It’s just till we find him a home.” You’ll probably have to sleep on the couch only for a week.

When clients ask me what breeds of pets I have, I say, “The breeds that need a place to stay.” From the happy land of all critters maimed and broken, dazed and confused, let’s try to find you shelter from the storm.

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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